Convenience Stores Deliver Waves of Innovation

Convenience Stores Deliver Waves of Innovation

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—In honor of the upcoming 60th anniversary of the founding of NACS on August 14, 1961, we’re looking back—and ahead—at how the meaning of convenience has evolved.

NACS Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Jeff Lenard shares how there’s been three distinct waves of convenience, with each one coming twice as fast as the previous one, in the NACS Magazine feature, “Making History.” (Read the story in a digital pdf or online format.) And the fourth wave looks to be here. Below are some of the highlights:

Wave 1: Home Delivery: 1785-On

Milk delivery was introduced in 1785 in Vermont, when milkmen traveled through neighborhoods with essentially a giant vat of milk, and residents would use any containers they had handy to fill up.

The strong post-war economy helped spur the suburbs’ growth in the 1960s, but the greater distances for travel between customers made traditional milk delivery from a dairy location cost inefficient. Wood Brothers, a 150-year-old dairy company, needed another distribution option for its milk and opened its first convenience store in 1964, now known as Wawa.

Today, Wawa embraces home delivery of almost everything sold in the store, including milk. Wawa is one of many c-store companies that can trace its roots to the dairy industry, and the word “farms” in the name is usually a key indicator, as with Weigel’s Farm Stores, Rutter’s Farm Stores and Cumberland Farms.

Wave 2: Delivery Services to Vehicles: 1913-On

The invention of the automobile created a second “place” for Americans beyond their homes. It ushered the second wave of last-mile delivery—to the car.

Curbside delivery, for example, is a variation of the “carhop.” In 1921, a Texas BBQ joint called Kirby’s Pig Stand pioneered the concept of delivery to the car. Parking spots surrounded the building on all four sides, and the servers, known as carhops, brought food to people in their cars.

White Castle introduced a different level of convenience with its carryout sack in 1927. Customers could order food and take it to go to consume later or eat while driving, known as “dashboard dining.” This concept continues to be embraced by convenience store customers today: 65% of the items purchased at a convenience store are consumed immediately.

Curbside pickup and the carryout sack combined create another last-mile delivery concept: the drive-thru. Many convenience stores embrace this model, whether for food or other items. Wawa garnered a lot of positive press and accolades in January 2021 when it introduced its first drive-thru convenience store, a concept that has been around in the industry for decades, even if they looked slightly different.

Wave 3: Delivery Via Mobile Devices: 1985-On

Home delivery has historically been linked with a device. Originally the device was a pen and a catalog order form, which was mailed to a business. Later, the device used most for placing orders was a landline telephone.

In the 1980s, new devices also were introduced at convenience stores. First it was pay at the pump, introduced in Europe in 1982 and in the United States in 1986 by E-Z Serve and its subsidiary AutoGas in Abilene, Texas. The dispensers featured a built-in credit/debit card reader system.

Convenience is closely tied to speed of service and that was also enhanced at the pump in 1996 when Wallis Companies, a Cuba, Missouri-based convenience store chain, served as the test market for Speedpass. In tests, Speedpass reduced the average three- to four-minute fueling time by 30 seconds. Within five years, more than five million customers were considered regular Speedpass users at Mobil-, Esso- or Exxon-branded stations.

Wave 4: Approaching?

In looking at the first three waves of convenience, each wave was roughly half the length of the one prior. Convenience continues to advance because consumers value convenience as much as anything at retail, including price. That means that all retailers, regardless of channel, must sell convenience.

While that makes the competition that much tougher for convenience retailers, it does reinforce two long-held beliefs: Convenience is king, and those who will win are those who can continue to redefine it.

Jeff Lenard is NACS vice president of strategic industry initiatives. He can be reached at [email protected].