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Small C-Store Operators

After a Difficult 2020 – Single C-Store Owners are Bouncing Back or Throwing in the Towel

small c-store operation

he COVID-19 pandemic has been brutal on businesses worldwide, but small businesses have taken a hit like no other.  It was commonplace to see many small businesses shut down during the year, especially single store owners or small C-Store operators.  In this case, by small C-Store operators, we mean those who own between 1 to 20 retail stores.  As of December 2020, there has been a 1.6% decrease in the number of C-Store operators in the US.

While economic difficulties rose in the past year, that was not the only reason as to why small C-Store operators were closing their businesses.  Some of them simply made an executive decision to sell their stores or let larger chains acquire them.  It relieved them from the momentary pause in business while keeping their stores afloat.  

Previously, the small C-Store outlook had been such that no matter where they launched their business, they would be able to operate with profits because of the nature of their business.  Now, they either fail within their first few years of operation or become profitable enough to be acquired by the larger C-Store chains.  During the pandemic, we saw another wave of change because of major disruptive trends in the industry, especially the use of digital technologies.  Businesses that adapted and implemented such technologies performed significantly better than their competitors.

The small C-Store outlook is also changing in 2021, with 4 out of 10 operators indicating that their sales trends are much higher this year.  Some operators even stated that it could be one of their best years ever.  

While it has become evident that the volume of operations related to small C-Stores is decreasing with time, 2021 is proving to be quite a refreshing year for the C-Store industry.  So, what do the trend reports look like?  Let’s find out.

The small C-Store outlook of sales in 2021

The C-Store industry had seen a massive jump in sales this year because the situation went back to a relatively normal state.  So, whether it’s a large chain of stores or single-store operators, a significant portion of them did observe an upward trend in their sales.  

According to "The State of the Small Operator" report produced by CS News in 2021, 66.7% of small C-Store operators said their dollar sales decreased in 2020.  It was surprising that small C-Store operators saw a lesser decline in their total dollar sales than bigger retail stores.

While weekly transactions within the stores saw a dip in sales, the buying trends did change within said stores. For example, the motor fuel or gas sales reduced significantly due to the imposed lockdown measures, but the in-store merchandise sales increase.  So, if they were not making money from one set of products, overall sales were being compensated for through another set.    

The small C-Store outlook is also changing in 2021, with 4 out of 10 operators indicating that their sales trends are much higher this year.  Some operators even stated that it could be one of their best years ever.  The same trends were observed for sales in other categories such as food service, gasoline, and in-store merchandise.  Overall, the small C-Store outlook is quite positive.

Biggest challenges faced by small C-Store operators

The pandemic resulted in dire economic consequences globally, and small C-Store operators were no exception.  While most of their problems were economical, some of their other issues include the inability to find adequate staff; lack of attention from their suppliers; disruption in the supply chain management due to transportation issues; competition within the industry; and keeping up with emerging technology along with rising in e-commerce trends.  

Small C-Store operators were forced to lay off employees to cut costs over time.  Now, with businesses booming again, it’s proving difficult to find employees who are satisfactory to the owners.  Even with the supply chain, many hurdles had to be crossed because they were overwhelmed with the sudden surge in demand.  On the other hand, rising fuel costs, fuel shortages, and changes in driver regulations led to further disruptions.  The increasing e-commerce trends were also a barrier to C-Stores, primarily single store operators.

What is the future outlook?

It’s become apparent that if small C-Store operators delay the technology integration process within their business, it’s going to catch up with them.  The pandemic provides ample proof of this.  Many single store operators struggled throughout because they simply did not adapt earlier.  

Observing trends from bigger stores, single store operators also took their business to the road.  For example, delivery services increased during the lockdown, and even businesses with their own delivery partners switched to much more economical services instead.   Even curb-side pickup became a viable option, with a few C-Stores experimenting with a drive-through concept as well.  Those that went the extra mile to improve their business operations using digital technologies saw a much better return in their business.

It might be hard for single store owners to implement such technologies due to the high cost and steep learning curve.  Nevertheless, small C-Store operators need to get on the digital bandwagon or risk losing their business.

September 12, 2021