business news in context, analysis with attitude

A special report by Michael Sansolo

HERSHEY, Pennsylvania -- Time was when a convenience store meeting focused on foodservice might have included a debate on melting cheese on nachos. That time is long gone.

The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) Global Forum, held this week here in Hershey, PA, featured lively discussion of how economic changes around the globe are impacting shoppers, meal time and convenience retailing. One of the key questions centered on the changing nature of convenience itself and how that is altering the historical nature of where c-stores fit in the spectrum of retail.

Answers to that question came through clearly on the extensive and excellent store visits during the two-day meeting. Retailers like Sheetz, Wawa, Rutter’s and Royal Farms stood out as exceptional destinations for a wide variety of fresh prepared meals, with all serving them in bright, clean stores that mix eye-appeal in healthy doses with impulse merchandising. Enormous gains have been made in food quality, employee service and product variety and every retailer at the forum focused on finding the next level of innovation and growth to stake out even stronger positions.

These sharp convenience store operators use the draw of gasoline and (incredibly) clean restrooms, as the magnet to attract shoppers inside—and the stores do an excellent job with signage to get shoppers inside. Once there these operators appear to be winning an increasing share of meal purchases in ways that should alarm quick service restaurants and supermarkets.

The Global Forum was attended by retailers from North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia, along with some key convenience store suppliers from around the globe.

Michael’s View: First, let’s clear my bias—I was the moderator of the two-day meeting. But my bias ends there. This was a stunningly well-planned meeting and the store visits would convince anyone that a trip of cutting edge retail needs to include central Pennsylvania. There you will find some incredibly strong c-store merchants raising the level of competition to a frighteningly high level.

And if you visit, go hungry. You won’t be sorry.

KC's View: