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The resilience and essential role of “c-stores”

by on September 17, 2020

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How convenience has adapted with the pandemic

 
Infections of the novel coronavirus are surging in my home province of Ontario. This is not yet a result of back to school, but rather reflects the socializing and activity that took place in the end of August and beginning of September.

To make matters worse, provincial health authorities are indicating that over 50% of current cases cannot be traced. This not only reflects the presence of community transmission, but of transmission occurring randomly, among strangers who have no identifiable connection.

(As a brief aside, technology would not be able to trace these infections, as many people do not have the necessary technology, i.e. latest model of smartphone, to participating in current tracing protocols. Singapore is currently addressing this by distributing dedicated tracing devices. Something larger countries would almost certainly not be able to do.)

Amidst this sprawling disaster in slow motion, I’ve been reflecting lately on the indispensable role of c-stores or convenience stores. Whether during the initial lock down, or as the retail sector has slowly attempted to reopen, they’ve not only played an essential role for many communities, but have also demonstrated leadership that has largely gone unrecognized.

When I lived in the city I did not pay much attention to c-stores, taking their ubiquity for granted. However upon moving to the country, their role and prominence increased dramatically.

Here they’re referred to as general stores rather than convenience or corner stores, and this designation speaks to their out sized roles. They tend to provide any and all services imaginable, short of having a pharmacist on staff. Fuel, food, booze, hardware, firewood, government forms, licenses, and services, you name it. And when municipal offices shuttered during the lock down, the general store was the only place to obtain a garbage tag so that you’re extra waste would be collected.

It was with this new appreciation in mind that I traveled to New Orleans in February for a gig speaking to c-store owners and executives. While I was invited to speak about AI, automation, and the future of (convenience) retail, I also learned a lot about the sector, as I tend to do when attending (industry) events. Similarly I was also able to make connections (via social media and this newsletter) with people working in and engaged with the industry.

One person in particular is Eva Strasburger, who is a subscriber to this newsletter, and someone I’ve enjoyed corresponding with during this pandemic. Eva is part of StrasGlobal, a Texas based company that operates and manages c-stores throughout the US.

What I’ve found impressive about StrasGlobal, but also the convenience retail sector as a whole, is the way in which they’ve not only responded to this crisis, but also demonstrated leadership. This comes at a time when I personally feel let down by almost all the institutions I depend upon or interact with.

For example, StrasGlobal was relatively quick to develop a pandemic response plan, and chose to share that plan with their industry, helping other organizations and retail operations that may not have been as fast or capable.

In early March, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to make headline news in the U.S., Roy Strasburger, president of StrasGlobal, a retail management solutions company, was putting together a task force of team members to determine the best course of action. Today, the company’s “COVID-19 Response Plan” is guiding its response in these difficult times.

“We started implementing our plan with communication and health protection actions first and gradually started working on the other areas,” Strasburger said. He added the company has not yet fully implemented all action items in the plan to date due to staffing, supply and technology challenges. “However, we are a much different company than we were three weeks ago,” he said.

Strasburger is now sharing the plan with other c-store retailers.

“In speaking to fellow retailers over the last week, I’ve come to the realization that, while everyone else started off at the same place we did, not everyone has a clear idea as to what to do,” Strasburger said. “We want to do our part to increase the COVID-19 knowledge base by showing actionable items that we, a relatively small operator, are implementing.”

In the context of the retail industry as a whole, and convenience retail in particular, StrasGlobal is a relatively small company, and while this may be partly why they were able to respond as rapidly as they did, it also reflects a willingness to protect their staff and respective communities.

As I mentioned above, for many communities, especially smaller and rural communities, c-stores act as pillars, as a foundational element, and a regular touch point for many people. In this context they play a particularly vulnerable role in potential transmission and spread of the virus, and their responsibility and leadership can have a huge effect.

This response plan has since been updated, which is commendable in itself, given the dynamic nature of how we come to understand this pandemic and the virus. I recommend giving it a read, as it does help contextualize the challenges c-stores face, and the thinking that has gone into protecting their staff and communities.

Similarly in a country that still regards masks as controversial, StrasGlobal was an early adopter, not only with staff, but mandating that all customers wear masks in early April.

They also went one step further, not just in mandating masks, but in making efforts to educate their staff and the general public as to the efficacy and essential role that masks must play in this pandemic. Many other retailers did not adopt or entertain such a position until well into May or later!

Part of this leadership comes from the head of StrasGlobal, Roy Stasburger, who unlike most company executives does not shy away from making controversial decisions (like mandating masks) or making predictions. Last month he wrote a post that offered 14 predictions for the convenience retail industry over the next year. Here’s a few that I found interesting:

5. Convenience store sales will return to near-average levels, although customer counts will remain 10-15% lower than last year. People will be spending more money online and trying to reduce their in-person interactions.

6. Average in-store c-store transactions will be 15-20% higher. Customers will continue to shop in anticipation of future restrictions (such as staying stocked up on toilet paper). They will also be trading up to the next level of product. In past recessions, we have seen customers gravitate to small luxury items such as craft beer, wine and chocolates because they are perceived to be affordable luxuries and are impulse purchases.

This last one is definitely true for me. I did a shopping run yesterday which was in full anticipation of another lock down. Similarly I have splurged on “affordable luxuries”.

7. Health and safety will continue to be a major customer concern. People are not going to forget the impact of COVID-19 anytime soon. Customers will expect retailers to maintain high levels of infection prevention and safety in their stores. Safeguards such as sneeze guards, social distancing and deep cleaning of stores will be expected and should be promoted by the store. Employee masks and gloves may become a permanent feature in stores (as we have seen in Asia over the past decade).

I agree with this wholeheartedly, although I’d add that ventilation may also become something that is demanded and expected. Given what we know about airborne virus transmission, quality of air and HVAC systems is also going to be important.

8. Get ready—there will be more regulations involving health protection, employee rights and employee sick time provisions. Expect more health-related permits and certifications that will be applicable to your store and your employees. We are fortunate that we have developed a software program, Compliance Safe (www.compliancesafe.com), that allows us to track and manage all of our permits and licenses. It has been very helpful in reminding us which permits need to be renewed while the local authorities have been shut down and, by centrally storing them in the cloud, allowed us to have easy remote access to all of our permits and licenses without having to go to the store or office.

This is another important point, that the bureaucratic or regulatory legacy of this pandemic will be significant. I’m also impressed that StrasGlobal recognize the role of a cloud based solution to facilitate broader compliance and process management.

14. Community involvement will become more important at the micro level. The pandemic showed us that our markets can be very restricted to the local neighborhood when people are on lockdown. Customers are looking for a local solution.

I think this not only illustrates the essential role of c-stores, but also the opportunity for them to play a greater role in their community.

When I spoke at the event in February, I mentioned the increasing role of automation, but I was also critical of Amazon’s proposed model, which radically reduces human staff and instead automates the check out process.

While this might work for Amazon, I didn’t think it would work for most, as it requires the customer to be pre-identified (in this case an Amazon user) and accept being subject to significant surveillance, data mining, and profiling.

Although that was all pre-pandemic. Now I expect that more people would be willing to accept such a Faustian bargain, especially if it meant they were less likely to be exposed to the virus.


However I still think there’s a role for human contact and community context. The convenience store that is smart, responsive, and still human-centric. That’s not to say that automation doesn’t have a role, but that there’s confidence and security in knowing that humans are responsible and responsive.

Which is why I’ve enjoyed learning about StrasGlobal’s efforts, and I hope you also enjoyed learning about them as well. I think we take for granted the role that convenience retail plays in our lives, especially in response to the pandemic.

It will be interesting to see how this sector continues to evolve and innovate into the (near) future.

One response to “The resilience and essential role of “c-stores””

  1. >This last one is definitely true for
    >me. I did a shopping run yesterday
    >which was in full anticipation of
    >another lock down. Similarly I have
    >splurged on “affordable luxuries”.

    Not so much with me, my “enhanced winter preparations” have been pretty much the usual stuff I normally stock up for winter (bulky or heavy items like paper products or canned goods) and substituting the things I would normally go to the store for during winter (milk, bread, salad mix) for longer shelf life replacements so I won’t have to go grocery shopping at all for 6 months. (At least if the rest of October goes according to plan, some things I haven’t fully finished stocking yet, some I have.)

    Things I’ve changed:

    -Canned Peas instead of salad mix
    (cheaper)
    -UHT Milk (and canned condensed milk
    for the last bit of winter after that
    runs out) instead of regular milk.
    (slightly more expensive)
    -Since my freezer can’t hold more than
    a few weeks of sandwiches I’ll be
    having Clif Bars for lunch instead
    of peanut butter sandwiches.
    (More expensive)

    None of the changes are really driven by luxuries, for me it’s entirely driven by shelf life and the uncertainty of what shopping is going to be like when it’s -40°C and we have occupancy limits in stores and the lines outside that go with that at the same time.

    Also it’s been a matter of re-thinking everything I use and doing the math to
    be sure winter plus a few weeks is fully covered. (In case the government decides after a year of half-assed lock-downs and half-assed re-openings that the day the snow melts, _now_ we are going to get serious about stamping the last bit of COVID out with a full lockdown.)

    Of course I’m “lower middle class” so
    that may affect my prioritization. ^_-

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