When you’re walking down the aisle of your local convenience store, you may not think twice about its surprisingly rich history. Packed with decades of quick and iconic snacks, drinks, and other essentials, C-stores are the epitome of American culture. But convenience stores have come a long way from their humble beginnings as 20th-century mom-and-pop shops. Instead of going to a butcher for your meat, a greengrocer for fruits and vegetables, a fishmonger for fish, or dry goods store for clothing and toiletries, we have the luxury of getting it all in one place.
Today, modern chains and family-owned convenience stores are scattered across the world, offering a wider variety of goods and services we have never seen before. Let’s go back to where it all started.
The Mom-and-Pop Era
The dawn of supermarkets began in 1915, when Vincent Astor, a descendant of the wealthy Astor family, invested $750,000 into creating the open-air Astor Market on 95th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Selling just meats, flowers, and produce, it wasn’t well-received by the public and eventually closed down in 1917.
Though unsuccessful, other states were experimenting with longer store hours and expanding their inventory in 1915-1920. Instead of just selling one niche category of items, the typical milkman or butcher would extend to other products beyond their territory and enter into competition with each other.
One said instance is the famous Piggly Wiggly, which originated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1916. It introduced many modern features we take for granted, like self-checkout, aisles, shopping carts, and service lanes. The founder, Clarence Sanders, received a patent and expanded to 1,267 Piggly Wiggly stores by 1923.
Though early mom-and-pop shops were somewhat a semblance of modern supermarkets, they were not truly convenience stores yet. They were small and cramped but affordable. In 1927, Tote’m Stores, otherwise modernly known as 7-Eleven, was founded in Dallas, Texas. Thanks to the establishment’s popularity, it rapidly grew in the 1950s, when convenience stores really started to shine—as well as Slurpees and Big Gulps. By the 1970s, there were over 5,00 7-Eleven stores across the United States.
The name change to 7-Eleven in 1946 is due to their newfound extended hours of operation: 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., seven days a week. In 1963, some even stayed open 24 hours a day. They’ve been growing their Big Gulp sizes ever since.
Product Lines Turn Conventional
In the 1970s and 1980s, store owners hatched the genius idea of selling more than groceries. We saw the first coupons appearing in newspapers and the first Spectra-Physics model A barcode scanner was invented in a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, in 1974. Using a Universal Product Code (UPC), the scanners read each product’s unique information and instantly add it to the customer’s bill. A quick and simple staple of the customer experience, the first item ever scanned was a pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum.
With quicker checkouts and more products like cigarettes, lottery tickets, snacks, sodas, and other high-demand convenience items, convenience stores ultimately became more popular and practical. And in 1986, the first touchscreen POS system and its software were presented at that year’s Las Vegas computer show by Comdex. With efficiency even more streamlined, they have become the one-stop-shop for everything from coffee to snacks to drinks to everything in between in the 1990s.
Chains Become Status-Quo
The 1990s were a time of big corporations arising and humble stores turning into conglomerate chains to compete. During the prime time of capitalism, companies like Circle K, Sheetz, and Wawa kicked production into high gear and quickly opened shops at rest stops, residential areas, and busy main roads. Stores became bigger, products better, and prices at an all-time low.
This was, by no surprise, extremely attractive to the public. Economically, the 1990s were in a recession, and people cared more about saving money than spending high prices on everyday items. The chains took advantage of that, running small stores out of business and capitalizing on the current market. That’s why in 2009, four chains were selling 50% of all groceries: Costco, Walmart, Kroger, and SuperValu. These supermarket whales innovated customer incentives to keep their profit always in the green, like loyalty cards and discounts.
The Digital Age
And that brings us to today, the Digital Age. This is the era of instant gratification through our smartphones. Many stores now sport mobile apps which allow customers to order and pay for items online and in advance and participate in rewards programs. Some stores even offer delivery services like Amazon Fresh, which delivers your groceries and convenience store goods right to your front door.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic shaped digitalization further, spouting a 220% increase in Amazon sales and similar success on other e-commerce platforms. Now, everyone wants to make purchasing quick and easy, and in advance, whether or not they are physically in the store. It’s not unconventional to see a C-store giving you the option to order your coffee, bakery items, or other products on your phone before picking them up in the store. Beyond that, wholesale convenience store suppliers always keep C-stores inventory-stocked, and many partner with delivery services like Uber Eats to allow for seamless delivery.
The Future of Convenience Stores
So, what’s next for convenience stores? One possibility is that they will continue to expand their product lines to a healthier selection involving fresh produce and organic foods. Another scenario would be that they become hyper-focused on digital technology as we move towards an AI-generated world.
No matter what the future holds, convenience store owners must be ready to adapt. This means understanding your customer base, expanding inventory, designing new products, and maintaining a healthy relationship with the manufacturer. A modern solution is benefitting from wholesale distribution services. From increased revenue and customers to cutting-edge technology, they can act as your support system as you expand and shorten the gap between the store, manufacturer, and customer.