Let’s face it. Without convenience stores, life would be so darned, well ... inconvenient.
When you’re in a hurry — when you need something fast — where do you usually go? The nearest convenience store, right?
We Americans visit each of the nation’s more than 151,000 convenience stores an average of 1,100 times a day, according to Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, in Alexandria, Va. About 300 of those visits come at the pumps, and 800 involve trips inside the store.
“We’ve done the math, and about 160 million people a day visit a convenience store,” Lenard said. “That’s slightly more than half of the people in this country.”
And that’s daily.
By comparison, Lenard said, viewership for the Super Bowl was only something like 115 million or so.
“The Super Bowl viewing audience is a slow day for us,” he said.
OK, so we flock to our convenience stores in this country. But now comes the infinitely more interesting question: What do we buy?
Recently, the Standard-Examiner asked the experts, “What are the five most-purchased items at Utah convenience stores?” For answers, we checked in with Kate A. Bradshaw, vice president of the Murray-based Utah Food Industry Association. Bradshaw put out a call to a few convenience-store chains, and two of them responded with their lists of the top five items purchased at their stores. Bradshaw said both lists contained the same five items, although not necessarily in the same order.
According to Bradshaw, here are the top five purchased items at convenience stores:
2. Cigarettes/tobacco products
4. Non-alcoholic drinks (fountain drinks, sodas, energy drinks, water, etc.)
5. Fresh-food items (sandwiches, burritos, hot dogs, etc.)
As it turns out, Utah’s buying habits aren’t all that different from the rest of the country. According to Lenard, 70 percent of a convenience store’s revenue dollars are from fuel — both gasoline and diesel.
After that, most sales in these stores — 84 percent, to be exact — are some sort of food, beverage or other item that is consumed almost immediately.
“Eighty-four percent goes in your mouth, within the hour,” Lenard said.
Tobacco products account for the biggest percentage of sales inside the convenience store.
“Nationwide, cigarette sales are about a third of our total inside sales,” Lenard said.
Although individual unit sales for cigarettes are in decline, the dollar figures for tobacco remain fairly consistent, according to Lenard. This is primarily due to tax increases and product price increases. At the same time, the number of places that sell tobacco has declined.
“Because of these two factors, sales dollars for cigarettes are still fairly high for convenience stores,” Lenard said.
But the real profit for convenience stores, according to Lenard, is in packaged beverages. This includes bottled soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and the like — but not milk or beer. What’s more, dispensed drinks, also known as fountain drinks, are huge sellers at convenience stores.
“About 40 percent of profit dollars in a store are liquids,” Lenard said. “When you think about going to a fast-food restaurant, you think food first, and then maybe also get a drink. But at a convenience store, you think drink first, and food second.
Local convenience-store managers bear out these national findings.
At the Common Cents convenience store at 12th Street and Wall Avenue, in Ogden, manager Chris Fisher says tobacco is his No. 1 seller.
“In the convenience store business, cigarettes have been popular for years and years,” said Fisher, who has nearly three decades working in the business. “At least, they are here.”
Fisher lists his top five sellers as: 1. Cigarettes; 2. Fountain drinks; 3. Snack items (chips, etc.) 4. Candy; and 5. Energy drinks.
Fisher said fountain drinks and energy drinks are always popular, selling well year-round.
“And then, when it’s cold like this, we sell a lot of hot drinks, too,” Fisher added.
At one Ogden-area 7-Eleven, energy drinks are the hands-down winner. The manager, who asked not to be identified because company policy doesn’t allow interviews with the media, said that particular store probably sells more energy drinks than anything else.
“Personally, I see a lot of energy drinks, coffee and fountain drinks,” the manager said. “But energy drinks are probably one of the most popular things here. Hot foods, also.”
That manager said they go through 40 to 50 cases of energy drinks each week.
But the sorts of items that sell well at convenience stores also vary greatly from location to location.
For example, at the Park Lane Chevron in Farmington — a quiet, mostly-Mormon community in the shadow of the nearby Lagoon amusement park — sugar-sweetened and diet soft drinks are, by far, the most popular item.
Manager Caden Hyer says fountain drinks are his best-seller.
“In the morning, the moms hit the drive-thru after dropping the kids off at school, and get fountain drinks,” he said. “Around 8 or 8:30, they come and get their Diet Coke.”
Of course, it isn’t just the moms; Hyer says all manner of folk drop by each morning for a fountain drink.
“And they usually get something else with it, like a doughnut or a bag of chips,” he said. “That’s the most common combo we see.”
Sales vary by time as well, according to Hyer.
From about noon to 2 p.m., energy drinks tend to dominate sales.
“People are just trying to get through the last few hours of work, and come in to buy energy drinks,” Hyer said.
In the afternoon, they sell a lot of hot dogs, cinnamon rolls and the like. And perhaps a bottle of soda pop and a bag of chips.
Then, later in the evening, around 8 or 9 p.m., Hyer sees a lot parents stop by for a late-night fountain drink.
“The kids are kind of calmed down for the night, so the parents come in for a drink,” he said.
All in all, Hyer says, soda pop is king at his Farmington store.
“The fountain drink is the common seller throughout the day,” he said. “We always see that.”
Hyer also says that during the warmer months, when Lagoon is open, they sell plenty of bottled water, and see folks coming in to stock up on items for a visit to the park.
“In the summer, we sell a ton of water,” he said.
Cigarettes and beer — normally top sellers at convenience stores — are only a blip at Hyer’s store.
“We don’t do as much beer and tobacco here as at other convenience stores, and coffee is not big here, either,” he said, adding with a shrug, “It’s just where we are.”