By: Jenn McMillen
Fountain drinks and fuel pumps, prepare for a jolt. The predicted growth of electric vehicles could drive a revolution in the convenience store industry.
There are more than 2 million electric vehicles on the road today, and their popularity is taking hold – 45% of new car sales could be electric by 2035, Reuters reports. California legislators in August approved a plan to phase out the sale of new gasoline-powered cars and light trucks by then, with 35% of sales to take effect by 2026. And the ramifications will likely extend beyond California – other states, including Massachusetts, Washington and New York have set similar goals.
This means nearly all of the 12,000 “C-stores” in California alone (Statista) could have the opportunity to become EV-stores, if they add charging stations. (Of the nearly 150,000 convenience stores in the U.S., nearly 117,000 – 80% – sell gas.)
And with those charging stations, convenience store retailers will need to add the amenities to keep their EV-owning customers occupied, and quickly.
Think: C-stores thrive on habit, but habits could be changed. Who’s to say there aren’t already business models on the horizon that could alter those routines? Not just EV charge boxes, but rows of charging stations located in walkable plazas, or EV service hubs where multiple businesses operate.
There's a sense of urgency under which C-store operators should consider these ramifications.
But First, They Must Clear Some Powerful Hurdles
California represents a fertile testing ground for retailers to transform themselves from quick-stops to stay-awhile hubs. But some may find it hard to even sell electricity.
According to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), U.S. policymakers might encourage government agencies and electric utilities to build, own and operate their own electric stations. Such guidelines, which might vary by state, would “stunt the private sector’s ability to invest in EV charging infrastructure and ultimately hinder the development of a robust charging marketplace,” the NACS states on its website.
Yet that potential hindrance may be a lesser concern to retailers eyeballing the cost of investing in charging stations. The price of installing an EV station that provides a full charge in three to six hours could run from $3,000 to $13,000, depending on quality and installation conditions, estimates the transportation information group Inspire Advanced Transportation.
Some are willing to make that investment, including 7-Eleven. In June 2021, the C-store chain announced plans to install 500 charging ports at 250 of its locations by the end of 2022.
That’s a lot of Slurpee sales.
Electric Vehicles Require Creative Outlets
Those C-stores that have the wherewithal to add charging stations will inherit an opportunity to redefine what they are. Some retail experts may argue that they will in fact be required to change their formats, because charging stations will force customers to hang around for a lot longer than for what convenience stores were designed.
How long? It can take from 30 minutes to multiple hours to charge an EV, according to U.S. News & World Report, so those owners will be looking for something to do. Here are five affordable ideas that convenience stores can consider to morph their spaces:
- Designer hot dogs and fountain drinks. When the dynamic of the C-store stop changes from grab-n-go to sit-n-wait, the nature of the food offered should change as well. Think of higher-quality, fast-casual meals that can be savored, but don’t require a full kitchen. Ethnic and gourmet condiments and surprise ingredients (think herbed chipotle chili) can transform a hot dog or burrito into an Instagramable snack. Fresh juices and meat-free options can be offered for health-minded EV drivers.
- Rentable workstations. Granted, this service would require a retrofit or expansion, but if C-stores audit their inventories, they may find categories that can be trimmed. A reasonable rental fee for a work pod, with Wi-Fi, can help cover sales as well as reduce fulfillment, storage, and stocking expenses. Point of reference: those work booths at the airport, which could charge $30 an hour or more. Chains that offer reward programs could allow members to earn and redeem their points at these stations.
- Streaming video booths. Those workstations? They can be converted into video streaming booths if the store is able to invest in a few monitors. The fee can be slightly higher, and it could encourage the purchase of snacks and soft drinks. Again, reward members can earn and redeem points for this use, while providing deeper and more diverse insights into their preferences.
- Auto detailing services. A menu of supplemental auto services, from interior cleaning to exterior buffing, can be outsourced to specialists who can work on electric vehicles while they are charging. This doubles the convenience for customers, while C-store operators can collect a percentage of the fees.
- Small-device recharge hubs. Hey, this is just a “because we care” convenience. C-stores could add free charging stations for the other electronic devices in their customers’ lives to use while waiting. These stores can install displays of chargers for sale nearby, as well.
While the market size of the convenience store sector has grown by an average of 3.1% a year from 2017 to 2022, its growth in 2022 is predicted to be just 1.8%, IBIS World reports. Among the factors affecting growth: competition from supermarket fuel chains, nearby dollar stores, and smaller-format food sellers. EV charging stations, while a big investment, could be the one investment that will accelerate a C-store beyond average growth.
Timing, location, and technology are all major factors. C-stores in California, for example, are probably already weighing the cost-benefits. Operators in other states should pay close attention. Electric power, after all, is not going to short out. It is itself a vehicle of growth.
Incendio founder and loyalty-marketing expert, Jenn McMillen, recently joined Forbes.com as a retail contributor and we’ve obtained permission to share her articles with you. You can see all of Jenn’s Forbes.com articles here.