Published on: May 24, 2017by Kate McMahon
When we first embarked on the 10-hour drive to my daughter’s college four years ago, it never occurred to me to seek out a convenience store in Pennsylvania for a healthy snack or a freshly brewed cappuccino. Then I discovered Sheetz and Wawa.
On our final drive back home last week, after her graduation magna cum laude (permit me a mother's pride), I knew I had to choose one over the other.
For residents of Pennsylvania, the Sheetz vs. Wawa rivalry is said to inspire “tribal loyalties” and heated debate. The two regional chains are also prime examples of convenience stores that defy the old “Cokes and smokes” image and an ongoing shift in consumer behavior.
I first stopped at a Wawa to refill the gas tank and did a double take when I entered the well-lit, welcoming store. This was not the tired, crowded convenience mart I expected. Instead of facing a rack of beef jerky and pastries in plastic, there was a cold storage case with cut-up fresh vegetables and dip and sliced fruit. I had one of those “Why don’t we have a Wegmans at home?” moments, except that in this case it was Wawa envy.
I had a similar reaction entering the bold, bright and big Sheetz, where many specialty items end in the letter Z. Customers were at a touch-screen custom ordering sandwiches with a choice of sauces and “fryz” on top, and the offerings in "Schweetz" section were beyond tempting.
In both, the coffee options matched Starbucks and other premium coffee emporiums in taste, at a lower cost point.
For the first time, I thought of a convenience store as a destination, rather than a midway point. And therein lies the defining difference for convenience stores faced with both gas and tobacco sales on the decline.
It’s all about the product inside, and convenience. A recent survey by Videomining found that more fuel buyers are making in-store, higher-margin purchases after filling up, with pump-to-store conversion up 2% nationwide since 2015. The research said an increasing number of women and Millennials are now shopping at convenience stores.
As the Wall Street Journal noted yesterday, the world’s big oil companies are looking to retool the gas station with new fuel options, restaurants, shops and even package delivery services to make up for revenue lost to electric cars and increased fuel efficiencies. These retooled stores also will present far more compelling competition to traditional grocery stores.
Freshly prepared food is clearly a key factor, whether a convenience store is a stand-alone on an urban corner, or part of a gas station on a rural route or an interstate highway.
In fact, the National Association of Convenience Stores reported that about 34% of in-store profits at convenience markets came from food and beverage service in 2015, up from 22% in 2010. While most menus include the basics - pizza, burgers and hot sandwiches - the NACS estimates that 10% of the 154,000 convenience stores across the country could be described as “food-forward” with ethnic offerings and make-your-own milkshake machines.
The trend also is adding to the pressure on fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, particularly since consumers can swing by a local Sheetz, for example, and pick up an affordable made-to-order burger and a gallon of milk from the drive-thru window.
Now back to Sheetz vs. Wawa. Family-run Sheetz, founded in 1952, has more than 650 locations across six states and some 1.3 million Facebook followers. Privately-held Wawa, founded in 1964, has close to 750 outlets in six states and is followed by 1.28 million on Facebook. In a national poll, Wawa nabbed the nation’s best convenience store rating, followed by QuikTrip at No. 2 and Sheetz in third place.
More importantly, both chains have a distinct personality and signature offerings (hence the rivalry), as well as mobile ordering apps that only add to the convenience of shopping there.
Pressed to choose on my final college road trip, I went to Wawa. That said, I am indeed jealous that it in the last week it was announced that Washington, D.C. is getting both a Wawa and a Wegmans.
That's what I call a Trump bump.
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