Retailers in the convenience store channel are in a challenging environment, battling everything from increased operating costs driven by labor shortages to credit-card swipe fees and more. They’re actively seeking innovation and regional opportunities to drive incremental sales. As a result, they’re focused on strategies that leverage in-house, supplier and consumer trend data to increase the efficiency of merchandise assortments and optimize the shelf. That’s where Advantage Solutions steps in.

During this year’s National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) Show held in Atlanta October 4-6, Advantage had teams on hand to offer and absorb insights and provide sales coverage, industry expertise and connectivity. “The show was high-energy and very well attended, rivaling pre-Covid levels,” says Doug Middlebrooks, senior vice president sales for convenience, Advantage Solutions. “The c-store industry is thriving as well as continuously evolving and we’re seeing more focus than ever on consumer-targeted assortment, offers, personalization and value. Shoppers who entered the channel during the pandemic are staying and shopping with increasing frequency.”

C-stores are an immediate-consumption channel constantly looking for products and services to deliver shopper solutions. There has been innovation across the spectrum, from store operations featuring cashierless checkout and a significant increase in EV charging stations to the continued expansion of foodservice programs at large and small chains. “With 83% of products consumed within an hour of purchase, c-store operators are looking for innovation in beverage and snack solutions. Specifically, snacks in on-the-go packaging at affordable prices, better-for-you options and indulgent treats along with a breadth of beverage offerings from frozen and fountain to alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks,” says Patricia Coe, senior director, strategy and commercialization for Convenience Retail/CMG, Advantage Solutions.

During the show, Steve Rodriguez, vice president of Category Leadership at Advantage, hosted a panel on “Thriving in a Competitive Marketplace: How to Win With Shoppers,” with Ruth Ann Lilly, senior vice president of merchandising and marketing at GPM Investments, which operates and/or supplies fuel to 3,200 convenience stores; Chris Stewart, vice president of merchandising at Casey’s General Stores; and Dave Brindise, senior category manager for candy manufacturer Ferrero USA. The group discussed the challenges the convenience channel is facing as well as assortment and merchandising recommendations for retailers to consider.

One of the biggest challenges is how quickly consumers in the channel are changing and how convenience stores can best position themselves with limited space to cater to broad audiences. Both GPM and Casey’s rely heavily on data over opinion or observation to determine their item assortment and space allocation within their stores. For example, Casey’s General Stores has more than 500 different planograms for its 2,600-plus locations to address local shoppers’ needs. “Because our stores are so small, every product has to pay the rent,” Stewart said.

Of course, products drive much of the attention, revenue and decision making, and the NACS Show offered a look at many new examples of manufacturer innovation. For instance, Campbell Snacks’ new Kettle Air Fried Chips product line in Jalapeno, Sea Salt & Vinegar and Himalayan Salt will be available in market in January 2024. Hain’s ParmCrisps Snack Mix and Thinster Cookies are also new to c-stores. And since energy drinks are purchased more in c-stores than in any other channel, Glanbia is competing with sleek new graphics for its AMIN.O Energy drinks line. These are just a few examples that demonstrate how CPGs are innovating to meet changing consumer needs, tastes and expectations in the channel.

Both GPM and Casey’s look to product innovation to help drive incremental sales growth. However, timing can be an issue based on their category review cycles. Most innovations are given a year to prove themselves before a retailer includes them in a category refresh. With so many choices in the marketplace, convenience retailers have to remain top of mind and well positioned to meet shoppers’ needs and expand their share of shoppers’ wallets.

Representatives from Advantage Category Leadership and Supply Chain teams were also on hand at the NACS Show to discuss business solutions that address c-store merchandising challenges and e-commerce fulfillment needs. “The show was a great opportunity for our team to meet with retailers from around the world to educate them on our service offerings,” says Rodriguez.

For Advantage’s Coe, there was even more cause for excitement at this year’s show as she was appointed to a new position as an executive member for the NACS Supplier Board. This is first time a representative from Advantage has been appointed to this board, and her appointment adds a valuable female perspective at the leadership level. “I look forward to working alongside some of the largest CPG brands and operators in serving the needs of our dynamic and evolving industry,” Coe says.