100 Days Of Summer Have Not Changed, But We Must


I have been through almost four decades of change in the retail food business, and one constant I have seen throughout this time is the 100 days of summer selling we see each year in the c-store business. Hot weather, increased guest counts, increased fountain and vault sales, and extended days all add up to a bigger market basket and better sales for our stores. The one constant is that summer comes and goes, and how well our stores perform during the summer determines how well our stores do for the entire year. Summer is our equivalent of the Christmas holiday season for retailers like Macy’s, Wal-Mart and Target.

Since I started in this business, everything about our stores has changed. The product assortment, the transaction size, the distribution model, and the customer have all continued to adjust to the technology and the times. Today, after months of anticipation, our stores are staffed, our summer sets are done, our orders have been adjusted, and the vault is ready for summertime guests needing cold drinks and snacks.

We have learned how important it is in our business to adapt and change with the customer, but it is a challenge to keep up with today’s pace of change and the adaptation of technology to communications with our guests. The amount of information and number of choices our customers have for their retail purchases is staggering. The younger generation gets more information, more quickly on their phone, computer or tablet than we ever could have imagined. They have more products from which to choose, more places to shop, and they can be harder to please and more demanding with their purchases.

Today, value offerings alongside premium offerings in almost every category are critical. As a result, we have e-cigarettes, craft beer and premium chocolate, along with private label, finding their way into our product mix and competing for space with the large cigarette, beer and chocolate companies.

(Private label in grocery stores has increased to 19 percent of total sales, a growth rate of 20 percent since 2007.) Today’s customer is still looking for Popsicles but often trades up to a premium chocolate Magnum bar, a Klondike or a Dove bar. We have learned that just having cigarettes, cold beer and snacks no longer satisfies the needs of 80 percent of our guests.

Today’s customer is looking for more. Yesterday’s customer spent time outside playing sports with the kids from the neighborhood. Today’s customer spends time online playing games with people from around the world. Social media and the digital guest experience keep the younger generation connected 24 hours a day at a level never seen in the past.

Today’s customer also speaks a different language. Our marketing plans are full of catchwords like Energy Ambush, Fill Chill & Thrill, and Get Real! Innovation and market segmentation are in. It’s no longer enough to have premium beer, we have to stock particular brews with just the right amount of hops, with a unique flavor and the right level of alcohol.

For a long time, 7-Eleven was the undisputed king of convenience. The economy was booming, inflation was our friend and we had very little competition from inside the c-store channel. There was very little channel blurring. Companies like Walgreens, CVS, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut were never considered competition. 7-Eleven’s site selection process never considered a demographic that included fresh foods, and we owned the holidays.

Today retailers in every channel are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and don’t close on holidays. Retailers like Dollar General are now looking to sell beer and cigarettes. Walgreens sells the most popular sports drink at 10/$10, and many c-stores offer fresh food offerings previously only available at QSRs. Somewhere along the way the retail world changed, and the c-store industry was slow to react.

Our core customer today has less disposable income but a lot more technology. Attracting the younger, more informed, tech-savvy customer is critical to our long-term success. While a check of the rear view mirror is always a good way to reflect on where we have been and how we got to where we are today, progress means looking forward, “through the windshield.” Understanding who the customer is and what they want is a job in itself.

The good news is that 7-Eleven is playing catch-up, focusing on the digital marketing and technology, and we seem to be gaining ground. The digital marketing schedule and the customer data collection opportunities scheduled for this year speak volumes about the company’s priorities.

The best news right now is that we have the entire summer selling season in front of us, and increased guest counts, increased sales of high margin items, and the delivery of new and innovative products are all in our immediate future. Let’s take advantage of the best time of year for c-stores, and likewise, I hope you will take advantage of the Coalition’s national convention, scheduled for the beautiful Venetian Hotel and Casino July 14-18. Franchisees are still the backbone of the system, and the National Coalition’s convention is all for us. Have a great summer.