As traumatized, pandemic-fearing shoppers begin to cautiously move about, their expectations for a high level of cleanliness will be even higher."

As COVID-19 has washed over the country, the role of — and demand for — convenience stores has quickly changed. Millions of Americans suddenly stopped commuting and taking long car trips. Spring vacation plans were scrapped. Shoppers focused on pantry filling, not buying individual servings for immediate consumption.

Open as essential businesses, many c-stores have been deemed less essential to many of their customers, though shoppers’ desire to shop locally and avoid crowded supermarkets has worked in some operators’ favor, depending on store location and product mix (alcohol, grocery, tobacco, packaged beverage and candy sales in the channel are up year over year or showing signs of strength).

As the nation reopens, each operator’s ability to win a long-fought battle — convincing consumers their stores are clean — will be even more important. The industry has worked hard to overcome the “dirty stores, stale products” stereotype. It’s not a coincidence that operators who are rated highly by consumers on cleanliness have been among the industry’s most successful.

As traumatized, pandemic-fearing shoppers begin to cautiously move about, their expectations for a high level of cleanliness will be even higher. Retailers’ steps to keep stores clean and customers safe — and their ability to communicate a renewed focus on cleanliness — will be critical.

A recent report by GasBuddy tells the story. The fuel-price app company analyzed customer reviews and foot traffic trends for more than 10 million c-store visits made between January 1 and April 31, 2020. Among the findings:

  • Visits bottomed-out between March 26 and April 1, before rising as restrictions began to ease in some areas.
  • Stations with above-average cleanliness ratings drove 17.23% more visits than their below-average competitors.

Little surprise, then, the survey found the five c-store operators most highly rated by GasBuddy users — Buc-ee’s, Twice Daily, Hy-Vee, Kwik Trip and Wawa — are those most highly rated for cleanliness.

While GasBuddy and other industry surveys typically point to fuel prices as having the most significant impact on customers choosing one c-store/gas station over another, in April Gas Buddy app users indicated cleanliness mattered more than any other factor when choosing a c-store. Their increased concern for store cleanliness showed up in their April reviews, according to the report, with users often expressing “exhilaration and relief at efforts to clean and disinfect high-touch areas.”

As in many areas of c-store operations, Wawa is proving to be an industry leader, with thoughtful and very visible actions meant to instill customer confidence to rebuild store traffic and boost sales. Their focus now is on new, necessary sanitation practices and prioritizing the well-being and comfort level of their shoppers.

Among the actions the top-rated operator of nearly 900 stores is taking:

  • Launching the Wawa Clean Force, a dedicated, trained sanitizing team focused solely on keeping stores and gas pump areas clean, sanitized and safe. These associates work at every store, every day.
  • Enacting new safety policies, such as masks and gloves for all employees; clear plastic safety guards at checkout and foodservice counters; more frequent handwashing standards; and wellness temperature checks for employees before each shift.
  • Encouraging social distancing with visual markers, providing more hand sanitizer stations and encouraging customers to make their visits “fast and friendly.” Signs notifying customers they are required to wear masks, per state and local regulations, are posted prominently.

On May 11, Wawa began to slowly reintroduce its highly profitable, highly popular self-serve coffee and fountain drink service in select markets, now offering wrapped stirrers and tissue paper for customers to use when touching pour handles. So far, according to Wawa, customer feedback has been positive.

Wawa’s response to COVID-19 has been transparent and focused on associate and customer safety with an emphasis on the old c-store Achilles’ heel: cleanliness. Moving into our new normal, operators who do the same will find themselves with more traffic and higher sales now and in the long run.

Advantage Solutions

Mike Stern
Senior Vice President, Small Format
Advantage Solutions

Mike Stern joined the Advantage Sales team in January 2020. He previously held leadership roles, including in convenience, foodservice and other small format channels, at The Coca-Cola Company.

Visit Advantage Sales.