First Impressions

NACS, April 2016   |   by Pat Pape

When Rutter’s wanted to design a bigger, better version of its already successful convenience outlet, management sent Derek Gaskins, chief customer officer of the 62-store chain, to Las Vegas.

“They wanted me to see what leading edge retailers—and not just convenience store retailers—were doing with their stores and how they manage the contrast between day and night,” Gaskins said. “Las Vegas businesses look very different by day and by night by the way they use lights and motion to attract customers.”

That visit influenced the external design and lighting at Rutter’s two newest locations, one in Leola, Pennsylvania, and the other north of Gettysburg. “At night when the LEDs come on, they illuminate details you might not notice in the day,” he said.

Enhanced lighting is just one of several major transformations in new c-store design, and unlike in the past, the focus on lighting is less about security and more about enriching the customer’s store experience.

Lifestyle Design 

Once a 2,400-square-foot box positioned behind a few gas pumps, the convenience store of today is rapidly changing. Early formats were designed to sell fuel and move some snacks, beer and cigarettes. But thanks to the lifestyles of younger consumers and a revolution in the fast-food industry, today’s convenience stores must meet a wider range of new expectations from customers.

“It used to be about millennials, but we are at Gen Z already, the first generation that grew up with a smartphone in their hands,” said Michael Lawshe, president and CEO of Paragon Solutions, a retail design firm based in Fort Worth, Texas. “If you haven’t changed with it, you’re behind the times.”

What customers want today isn’t the same as even a few years ago. “Five years ago, there was a single entrance to every store and limited parking, but now parking is incredibly important,” Lawshe said. “Things are changing because customer preferences are changing. And to attract that next generation, the design of the store has to change.”

“Convenience stores became generic,” said Joe Bona, president of MoseleyBona Retail, a retail design firm in Franklin, Massachusetts. “You need to have something that people can identify with as being unique and different. You have to communicate and speak to people.”

Bona said c-stores have to think about QSRs and retail brands. “It’s not just the logo,” he said. “It’s the way they present themselves to the public. We’ve got to convince people that this is a place to buy food, and it starts with the exterior.” And once customers are inside, store layout becomes very important. “What is that first impression? You’ve made a promise on the outside to get them in the store, and now you must fulfill that promise,” Bona said.

Bigger, Better, More Parking 

Rutter’s newest stores in Gettysburg and Leola are 9,100 square feet and 7,200 square feet, respectively. The Gettysburg location is a hybrid, Gaskins said: “One part restaurant, one part convenience store and one part truck stop.”

Located right off U.S. 15, the store has a dedicated island for high-speed diesel and a separate store entrance for truckers, plus a 2,000-square-foot area with merchandise that truckers want and need when they’re on the road. A 40-seat restaurant features WiFi and a menu offers entrees such as crab cakes, beef ribs and dinner baskets.

“Seating used to be a big no-no,” Lawshe said. “Retailers didn’t want people to stick around because they didn’t have enough parking and they weren’t offering food. If you’re asking people to buy food, they want a place to sit. The competition has seats, so seating is very important now if you’re going to be in the foodservice business.”

With 50 employees ranging in age from 15 to 84, the store opened before Christmas and within days was one of Rutter’s top-performing locations. “We’re trying to meet the needs of multiple customer segments in an equitable manner,” Gaskins said. “We don’t want our convenience or restaurant customers to feel like they’re going into a truck stop or our truckers to feel like they’re going into some small c-store that doesn’t meet their needs.”

CST Brands owns 1,100 Corner Stores in the Southwest and 300 in Canada. The average store is about 2,800 square feet, but the company recently constructed five new locations in its headquarters city of San Antonio, Texas. Each is about 5,500 square feet, with more than 50 parking spaces for shoppers.

“The lot is bigger to accommodate the high fueling capacity of the site, as well as parking in front for the store customer,” said Hal Adams, president of retail operations, CST Brands. “Whether you’re a fuel customer or store customer, you don’t feel crowded or that you’re in somebody’s way.” All Corner Stores have outdoor seating, but the newest locations feature 20 in-store seats so customers can relax and enjoy the fresh-made food offerings.

In February, Kum & Go of Des Moines opened a 6,000-square-foot store in Johnston, Iowa. The new location is Kum & Go’s Marketplace concept and replaces an older store that was half the size and located on the same site. There are 22 parking spaces with room to add 11 more. “Our gas canopies have been very red, but this one incorporates some of the more natural materials used inside the store,” said Kristi Bell, communications director for Kum & Go. “It looks gorgeous at night.”

This is the chain’s first non-QSR location with indoor seats, plus a counter with eight stools and a charging strip so customers can plug in a laptop or recharge their cell phones. In addition, a covered outdoor patio has heaters in the ceiling and tables to accommodate 12 more diners. “If you have a made-to-order sandwich, you might not want to eat it in your car,” she said. “You might want a nice place to sit down.”

To embellish the store exterior, an 8-foot-tall sculpture shaped like the company’s signature ampersand features words and images that reflect the local area on one side. The opposite side displays the core values and culture of the chain. The unique artwork is a tribute to the company’s slogan, “Where & means more.”

“It’s a physical representation of our brand,” Bell said. “Between now and the end of 2016, we plan to build approximately 28 more Marketplace stores.”

More to Consider 

Bona believes that to be competitive with QSRs, convenience stores need to consider drive-thrus. “At many QSRs, 50% to 60% of sales come from drive-thrus,” he said. “Drive-thrus could be another tool that retailers may want to consider as they look for ways to be more convenient.”

“The fast feeders are reaching into our pockets,” Lawshe said. “McDonald’s and Sonic now sell bags of ice. Convenience stores should take the things we’re known for and start pushing [them] through the drive-thru.” It’s commonplace to see customers in cars checking their email while patiently waiting in line to order from a Starbucks drive-thru. “This next generation is very mobile, very social and willing to wait,” he said.

A decade ago you could build a 2,400-square-foot store with two pumps and put less than $400,000 into building it. “Now a typical store may be $150 a square foot for the building, and then you add your equipment, concrete and land costs,” he said. “Today stores are $2 million to $3 million. You better have multiple profit centers going in there.”

Both Bona and Lawshe believe technology will continue to enhance the shopping experience whether retailers offer touch-screen food ordering or a futuristic payment technology that requires minimal physical contact with the fuel pump.

“In the future, you may have a sticker on your license plate or window—like a toll-road pass—that will be able to communicate with the pump,” Bona said. “It will recognize you and your payment [for fuel] will be automatic. There will still be pumps with hoses, but technology will change the experience for most people.

“Convenience comes in all shapes and sizes and continues to drive our industry,” he added. “We serve people who need to eat several times a day and may shop two or three times a day. There are a lot of reasons for the store size getting bigger and changing in order to be as convenient as possible.”

Originally published in the April 2016 issue of NACS