Frank Beard is a longtime convenience retail enthusiast who currently works in marketing for Rovertown. His column, The Road Ahead, examines innovation in the c-store industry.

I recently rewatched “Back to the Future” and got a kick out of the gas station scene.

After Marty McFly accidentally travels back in time, Hill Valley’s gas station is the first sign that strange things are afoot.

He stands there and stares, perplexed, as a team of Texaco station attendants rush toward a car like a NASCAR pit crew.

The scene works because gas stations went through such drastic changes between 1955 and 1985, but if “Back to the Future” was suddenly remade today, they’d have to cut it.

The average store just didn’t change enough between 1994 and 2024.

Rather, today’s stations are a more refined version of the model that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s after the convenience business merged with the fuel business.

And it’s easy to see why that’s been so resilient to change.

We live in places designed for cars, not people. It makes sense for the American convenience store to be next to a fuel canopy instead of a sidewalk.

It’s also why many retailers struggle with urban convenience store concepts. Decoupling convenience from fuel is difficult — especially at scale.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’ve picked up on a few things after spending a lot of time in urban convenience stores.

1. Discovery is cool, but velocity pays the bills 

There have been several urban concepts launched by folks outside of this industry. These are often a gentrified take on the American convenience store, complete with trendy sans serif lettering and a higher-priced, upmarket product mix based around health and discovery. 

Generally these stores fail, with Foxtrot being the most notable example. But I understand the desire to make them work. I admittedly loved Foxtrot.

I enjoyed walking in and finding new, exciting products that aren’t typically available in a convenience store.

Add in some avocado toast, outdoor seating and a decent wine selection, and Foxtrot was really speaking to me as a millennial.

But I always left with a sneaking suspicion that some of their products were collecting dust.

I mean, come on — do you really expect people to make a regular habit of buying $15 adaptogenic mushroom chocolate bars?

Convenience stores rely on fast-moving products, and my hunch is that Foxtrot’s model was weighted too heavily towards product discovery rather than velocity.

Indeed, Foxtrot may have been aware of this, as it had begun shifting towards national brands prior to their demise.

2. Don’t copy and paste what works at the gas station

But there’s also a risk on the other side of the equation.

I’ve visited several now-shuttered urban concepts from established convenience retailers, and I was always struck by how their product mix was nearly identical to what I’d find at their gas stations.

One even had a shelf full of motor oil and gas cans.

It’s tempting to stick with what works, but the product mix at the average convenience store is deeply shaped by its proximity to a fuel canopy.

Inside sales are to some degree a function of fuel volume, and the mass-market, everyman offer reflects the fact that the gas station is one of the few leveling places in society where everyone shops regardless of socioeconomic status.

View article source here.

Posted in

Subscribe to our free mailing list and always be the first to receive the latest news and updates.