More convenience retailers are investing in new forecourt amenities that are bigger, brighter and potentially more profitable.
By Pat Pape, Contributing Editor
The convenience store forecourt has traditionally been an area with a limited number of fuel pumps and parking spaces, and perhaps a few retail items such as fireplace logs or bagged ice for sale outside the front door.
However, that tradition is slowly being replaced as sparse, utilitarian exteriors that marked most c-stores are being redesigned with the modern consumer in mind.
Newly constructed c-stores boast forecourts that are bigger and brighter, with products and services designed to get customers to spend more and stay a while. Since c-stores compete with quick-service restaurants (QSR) for hungry customers, today’s store exteriors must look like a great place to eat, according to Joe Bona, president of Moseley Bona Retail, a retail design firm based in Franklin, Mass.
“The store exterior is the customer’s first impression,” Bona said. “It says ‘This is who I am and what I represent. Take a look at what we’re doing here.’”
To make a great impression, newer stores feature spacious parking lots, some with as many as 50 spaces, and super-sized gas canopies with LED lighting. Notable brands that have committed big budgets to revamping store sites with LED lighting include 7-Eleven and York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Farm Stores, which has installed dynamic LED lighting designs at many of its 63 locations.
When constructing his first Andy’s Express in Lincoln, Neb., owner Mike Anderson insisted on LED at the forecourt. “I knew that was up and coming, and I wanted to make sure the store was energy efficient,” he said.
“Compare a forecourt with LED and one with traditional lights, and you’ll see a noticeable difference,” Bona said. “With LED lights, you can recess them, and they look more modern and clean. They increase the brightness, and add to the safety and comfort people feel when they approach your forecourt. That’s where the industry is heading.”
According to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), almost 40 million drivers fill up their gas tanks daily, and some new stores are adding extra pumps. An extreme example might be Buc-ee’s convenience store that opened in 2012 in New Braunfels, Texas—between Austin and San Antonio—that boasts one the nation’s largest fueling forecourts with 120 gas pumps.
“Buc-ee’s is unique in many ways,” said Mike Lawshe, president and CEO of Paragon Solutions, a retail design firm in Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s moving the needle. If a chain was putting in 10-12 pumps, it might bump it up. But Buc-ee’s gets huge lots to facilitate what it’s doing.”
COMFORT AND CONVENIENCE
Today’s focus on first-rate foodservice means that not every customer is in a rush. In fact, many want a pleasant place to sit and eat. At a Rattlers’ convenience store in College Station, Texas, Owner Jim Kolkhorst has placed comfortable wooden rockers and gliders just outside the door. Not only can customers sip a cold soda or a cup of coffee while lounging in the shade, they can purchase one of the rockers and take it home. The Rattlers chain recently sold to Sunoco, and time will tell if they keep the same aesthetic touches.
Kum & Go of Des Moines, Iowa, recently opened the Kum & Go Marketplace, a 6,000-square-foot location in Johnston, Iowa. Inside, the store offers diners 20 seats, with a covered outdoor seating area that can accommodate 12 additional customers. Customer comfort was a key consideration when the outside dining space was designed. Heaters built into the ceiling keep outdoor diners cozy during cooler months.
“Even when it gets down to about 40 degrees, you can turn on the heaters and be very comfortable,” said Kristi Bell, communications director for Kum & Go.
Outdoor seating is a forecourt bonus, some experts say, but should be inviting to patrons—to the degree that customers are inclined to consider the site a destination.
Determining what components to include in forecourt planning now involves futuristic considerations, such as electrical car charging stations. Some c-stores that are going this route are fashioning forecourts to entice motorists to linger while charging their electric cars.
In 2014, Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz added electric chargers in five locations. Last year, Ricker’s teamed with Nissan to install fast-charging electric stations at nine Indiana locations. The agreement is part of Nissan’s “No Charge to Charge” program, which gives two years of no-cost charging to buyers of Nissan’s Leaf electric car.
However, any electric vehicle can be charged as long as the owner has the appropriate vehicle-specific charging port. Spinx stores of Greenville, S.C., partners with Nissan to install the first of seven “No Charge” stations this month. Meanwhile, Kwik Trip stores of La Crosse, Wis., have car-charging outlets at more than two dozen locations.
For some time, convenience retailers have used technology at the fuel pumps to advertise products, encouraging customers to come inside and shop.
Scott Zaremba, owner of four Zarco convenience stores in Lawrence, Kan., has progressive ideas about forecourt technology and has spent several years developing a system that allows customers to order fresh food inside while pumping their gas.After working with a service provider that couldn’t execute to his specifications, Zaremba, a self-taught techie, along with partner Peter Tawil, a true techie, created his own fuel-pump ordering system.
Today, one of his four stores has a touchscreen that looks like an iPad attached to the fuel dispenser. It operates independently of both the pump technology and point of sale (POS).
“Our biggest issue was tying all the equipment together in the POS,” Zaremba said. “That’s where we ran into problems. All we want to do with the tool is sell stuff without interfering with fueling.”
Now, fuel customers can do everything they normally do at the pump, plus use the tablet to create a customized sub-sandwich order. In the two years the system has been in operation, no customer has ever placed an order and driven off without picking it up and paying for it in the store. Zaremba continues working on the system and is now making it available to other store operators.
“We are testing what kind of orders we can put on it,” said Zaremba, who thinks it has great potential for drive-through stores. “But we don’t want to make it overwhelming with too many choices for too many things.”
Expect to see new c-stores with drive-through windows. “It you look at stats from fast feeders, you’ll see that up to 60% of their business goes through the drive-through,” Bona said. “If that’s our new competition, we have to look at how we’re going to compete more directly.”
The 40-plus Parker’s convenience chain, based in Savannah, Ga., includes two drive-through locations that sell everything, except lottery, to customers behind the wheel. Pak-a-Sak stores of Amarillo, Texas, increased the number of drive-throughs after originally purchasing a couple of unfinished Starbucks stores and testing the concept.
Andy’s Express can sell any convenience store item through its drive-through except alcohol, which is prohibited by state law. The drive-through is an extra convenience that customers appreciate. “A lot of moms with kids don’t want to unbuckle their kids and go inside for pop,” said Anderson, who is open to improvements in his stores, inside and out.
When conceptualizing a modern forecourt for a new store location, retailers should also be conscious that duplicating a forecourt idea that was successful in the past might not be the way of building business, going forward.
The biggest mistake a chain can make when building a new store is to “take what they’ve done historically and try to duplicate it,” said Lawshe. Instead installing new and improved concepts can be game changers.
“I always look at what I like in a c-store, not necessarily what’s going to make the most money,” Anderson said. “I encourage our people to try new things. We call it reinventing continuously and making sure we give customers what they want. If you don’t like the way things are going, try something different.”