business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

The ominous e-commerce clouds that darken the future of brick and mortar retail, somehow parted for a while last week over one specific segment of retail in a way that should open anyone’s eyes.

The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) held its annual conference in Chicago and the atmosphere was incredibly upbeat. Now that’s hardly a surprise at any industry convention as those gatherings typically reflect some level of celebration, merited or not. But the NACS show stood out to my eyes in its energy and optimism.

It’s not as though convenience stores are magically immune to all the challenges currently facing retail. In fact, the channel probably could claim many mounting uncertainties of its own. Gasoline, after all, is a linchpin of c-store business and we constantly hear news of major car companies - including General Motors - discussing the looming end of gas-powered vehicles.

What’s more, many in-store staples of the c-store, be they cigarettes, sweets or soft drinks, are battling to maintain market power against an array of forces.

Yet, the show was brimming with activity, energy and, incredibly, optimism.

There are numerous reasons. It was impossible for any visitor to the event not to detect a pronounced shift in the products on the show floor. Sure, all the traditional categories you’d expect at a c-store show were present featuring new solutions to older categories, such as electric car rapid charging stations.

But the star of the multi-day event was clearly food.

And not just the food many of us always associate with c-stores although roller hot dogs, quick made pizza and fried chicken were in large supply. Yet, there were also vegetarian options, artisanal items, emphasis on local products and even some of the current consumer hot buttons like GMO labeling.

NACS CEO Henry Armour made note of the changing industry in his upbeat presentation on the industry that included video vignettes of game changing c-stores from around the world. The changing nature of the industry, as Armour pointed out, is even causing a major symbolic change at the association, which unveiled a new logo heavily focused on the “C” in NACS.

Armour explained that the “C” is coming to stand for many things beyond just convenience. Most prominent among them is “community.” C-stores, he said, have recognized their role as community centers, places customers like to visit, rely on for staples and see meeting key customer needs especially in underserved communities that might not have the population for a large store.

That’s a fascinating and incredibly important take on the future. As we’ve written here before, the very nature of convenience is changing rapidly. Not long ago, a solid location was an unassailable retail advantage. Today, shoppers can sit on their sofa and order products simply by talking to a device like Alexa or Google Home, a level of convenience that’s near impossible to beat.

For the c-store industry, that emerging reality along with other challenges (think electric cars) could sound like a not-so distant death knell or a warning to find a new course.

Survival of the fittest never favors the strongest or largest. It always favors those most able to adapt to a new reality. Just possibly, the convenience store channel is up to that.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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