For a number of years now the Convenience sector has been in growth, with aggressive store opening strategies hitting the spot for shoppers who have less time in their busy schedules to spend on lengthy shopping trips, or who actively seek out a range of retail environments to satisfy increasingly diverse needs. Look a little closer, however, and there are signs that this ‘channel’ is under pressure. In our own research (WindowOn StockTake 2019) we saw a drop in the proportion of shoppers who had visited small format c-stores in the last month. Coming after several years of growth, this was something of a surprise. At first glance our data also suggested that the c-store channel has become another victim of the rampant popularity of the Discounters, who themselves have pursued aggressive store opening strategies.
But as always with shopper trends, we have to ask if it is that simple. Or is it that convenience means something else for today’s shoppers? In the past we tended to think of convenience as being about location and immediacy – to the extent that shoppers were prepared to suck up higher prices, knowing there was a trade-off to be made. Now, however, online shopping is arguably more convenient in terms of location and immediacy, especially if you sign up to a service like Amazon Prime and access 1 hour delivery slots. Is a store convenient if you can’t park outside, or struggle to find what you want because the layout or category signage is poor, or are forced to buy a 2 ltr bottle of Coke because that’s all they stock?
We also need to factor in the growing desire for a positive retail experience. Increasingly shoppers are articulating the expectation that they will only make the effort to visit stores that provide a good experience: great bargains; interesting / unusual ranges; friendly / knowledgeable service; easy to shop; inspiration; or time saving. Given the average UK shopper visits 4 different grocery brands a month, and shops for groceries 5 times a fortnight, they know a good and a bad experience when they see it.
If those small format stores that we think of as convenience stores aren’t delivering any better convenience, or offering as good an experience, as all the other options available, is it any wonder shoppers aren’t using them as often as they used to? In which case, what was a strength in the retailer’s armoury is now at risk of being a millstone, unless they can be re-purposed to better reflect changing shopping habits.
Perhaps one solution is to stop using the phrase convenience stores - instead calling them small format stores. This might feel like semantics, but a deliberate change of name can lead to a conscious change in thinking, which is what is required to keep this ‘channel’ relevant to shoppers. The opportunity is there. Small stores are easier to adapt than supermarkets or hypermarkets. They can be the flexible face of the brand reflecting local rather than national habits, able to develop real, community level relationships with shoppers. But this does take a shift in strategy. Retailers need to move on from ‘convenience’, because that phrase is no longer a point of difference, nor does it reflect how shoppers shop.
In our humble opinion, if you are looking for a great example of how small format stores are rising to this challenge, a great place to start is with a visit to Eat17. There are bound to be others we should visit – if you know of any, share the news as we love to see UK retailers rise to the challenge!
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