The gas station/c-store industry has generally been spared from the ravages that COVID has wreaked on the economy. In some places, mostly urban and commuter-related, sales remain soft, but in other areas sales are as good or better than last year. Overall, it is safe to say that our industry has weathered the storm as well as any. Looking forward, how should gas station/c-stores position themselves for a post- COVID future? Many operators would like to retain a cushion of cash instead of re-investing in their stores but making an investment today could result in better future cash flows, provided you are making the right investment.
1. EMV at the pump. As most of you know, this one is not negotiable. The deadline has been pushed out to April 2021, but you need to do it, and it is somewhat expensive. So how to get the most bang for your buck here? See what the touchless options are. They will make your EMV conversion more expensive but touchless is the future, especially after COVID, so if you are doing EMV anyway, you may as well bite the bullet and go touchless.
2. Drive-thru. This probably won’t apply to most operators but for those who have the ability and may have missed the memo: drive-thrus are absolutely killing it right now. Most are up 50% or more and drive-thru sales are likely to remain elevated in a post- COVID world. If you have the room, and your town by-laws are favorable, think about installing a drive-thru. Even if you can’t attract one of the big coffee names, you might be surprised that local coffee shops would be interested in renting the space, or you could start a coffee offering of your own.
3. Delivery. I know – payroll is a huge expense and nobody is actively looking to
take on more employees right now. But delivery is a huge market right now – think
DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, etc. Maybe you can team up with one of the existing
delivery services to bring your c-store items to people’s homes, or maybe it makes sense to bring on another couple employees and do it yourself. Fewer
people are venturing out of their homes. That is just the reality. You should think
about how to position yourself to take advantage of that reality.
4. Clean up it. Customers want to see a focus on cleanliness in stores. Think of ways to deliver that. ExxonMobil is rolling out a requirement for operators to have hand sanitizer at the pump. They are doing that because they know what customers want. Use their marketing wisdom and provide hand sanitizer at the pump and near the doors and registers – anywhere that customers will be touching a surface that a lot of other customers are touching. Install hands-free sinks, toilets, soap, and towel dispensers. Use attractive signage to make customers aware of your stringent cleaning protocols so they feel safer and cleaner in your store. A small investment can go a long way here.
5. Electric charging. Is it time? It may be time. Look around at some options for
dipping your toe in the water of electric charging. Maybe put one charging station in
a rarely used parking space and see what happens. This one may not pay off
immediately, but if you show that you are on the front lines of electric adoption maybe you will be able to retain more customers as electric vehicles become more widespread.
6. Solar. Gas stations use a lot of energy, and they are generally in spaces that are open to sunlight. If you are installing or replacing acanopy, or if you have a good amount of south-facing roof, solar may be worth looking into. It likely will not cover all your electric costs, but there could be some tax credits and the investment will likely pay for itself in 3-5 years.