The c-store paradox

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Articles - October 2013
Monday, September 30, 2013

BY JONATHAN FROCHTZWAJG

1013 CStore 03
Above: Kizer Couch tends bar at his Bend mini-mart, which boasts 47 taps of beer and other beverages.
Below: Couch plans to sell franchises of the “Growler Guys” portion of his store.
// Photos by Joe Kline
1013 CStore 04

Soda Shaq, the new line of cream sodas from Shaquille O’Neal and iced tea maker AriZona, is a health nut’s nightmare. Each Shaq-emblazoned, 23.5-ounce can contains 72 grams of sugar — the equivalent of 17 teaspoons. In health-conscious Portland, one would think the sodas, sold primarily through retail partner 7-Eleven, would go over like a lead balloon. But one month after the product release this summer, Portland sales weren’t just good — the city’s 7-Eleven stores were selling more Soda Shaqs per location each day than any other store group in the country.

To hear the New York Times tell it, Portland is a foodie’s land of (organic) milk and (local) honey where every denizen shops at a co-op, tends a garden and contemplates buying a goat. Evidently, though, more than a few of us don’t fit into that paradisaical portrait; instead, we patronize 7-Eleven and sneak swigs of sugary soda. There is a disconnect here, and perhaps nowhere is this gap more visible than through the lens of that ubiquitous peddler of instant gratification: the convenience store.

Nationally, the convenience store industry is a powerhouse. The 149,000 “c-stores” in the United States handle 160 million transactions per day. They grossed sales of $700 billion in 2012 — more than either grocery stores or restaurants. Both the number of stores and total sales increased, albeit modestly, last year.

Despite the state’s slow-food reputation, Oregon’s c-store industry is no exception to national trends. Our store count went up every year between 2009 and 2012, and our homegrown chain, Plaid Pantry, was among the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in the country last year, according to Inc. magazine. As the media portrays us — and as we collectively see ourselves — Portlanders wouldn’t be caught dead at a convenience store. The status of Oregon’s c-store industry, its strengths and the hurdles ahead, however, complicate the Portlandia picture.

Despite strong performance in Oregon and around the country, the c-store sector faces several challenges. Health consciousness is rising. Gas profits are falling. More and more businesses are encroaching on c-stores’ primary proposition, selling convenience in the form of a self-checkout stand or an express espresso. Though it may be an unexpected source for convenience store innovation, our idiosyncratic state offers the industry some distinctly Oregon solutions.



 

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Guest
-1 #1 it takes all kindsGuest 2013-10-02 17:54:59
This is a good object lesson for "progressive" (or substitute your favorite label) thought leaders and media darlings who are just sure everyone really agrees with them. What real diversity actually looks like...
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Guest
0 #2 Happy to See The Growler GuysGuest 2013-10-15 23:43:57
This summer I was reentering the east side of Bend after a camping trip, which is where I discovered the the Growler Guys as nestled inside a gas station. The idea was interesting, despite the questionable pairing of beer and driving. I was delighted to see nods to nondrinkers like myself, in the form of Townshend's Kombucha and Rogue Root Beer, with free samples flowing. The Stop 'n' Go the Growler Guys shop was attached to had an old-timey service station feel, with uniformed employees carefully cleaning windshields wearing fresh uniforms (complete with hats!) and asking to take our trash. Everyone at the shop was really friendly and the whole outfit seemed very service oriented. To me, those aspects are what I'd like to see in the convenience store of the future, more than the ability to get a growler filled.
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