Inside scoop

The latest c-store design trends speak to evolving categories and consumers.
7/17/2023
Oxana Boriak headshot
Oxana Boriak

Refrigeration that lines the perimeter of a store like a chilly, monotonous border. Hot stations offering self-service coffee at the end of the checkout counter. Resin flooring in dull colours.

These and many other elements of a c-store’s look and layout have become standard. But designers like Oxana Boriak are being invited to challenge the norms.

Boriak is associate director at the Montreal office of Benoy, and before that was at Gervais Harding & Associates design studios, which the former, a London-headquartered architectural firm, acquired in 2022. A 25-year veteran of retail design, Boriak has previously led projects for the likes of Pusateri’s, on locations throughout Toronto, and the entertainment and retail centre American Dream in East Rutherford, NJ, on its Food Hall, which opened last year.  

“We are playing with breaking out the monotony of how displays are in the middle and fridges along the perimeter,” she says, “as well as other predictable aspects of a c-store, through the use of materials such as natural wood, for a more natural appeal and feel, as opposed to obscure, dark shelving.

A fresh approach

Boriak is speaking about a creative direction project, of which she is lead designer, on KaleMart24, a new c-store concept from entrepreneur Oussama (Sam) Saoudi, the CEO of Toro Beverages, a brand of sugar-free energy beverages infused with matcha that he launched in 2019. Multiple locations in the Montreal area have been secured by the retail upstart, with a timeline that includes having more than 30 stores across Canada by the end of 2025. Saoudi told CSNC earlier this year KaleMart24 will “breaking through the mould of c-stores being associated with junk food by offering healthier choices that cater to a mobile-savvy younger audience."

[Read more: "KaleMart24 aims to be the Whole Foods of Canadian convenience"]

convenience store interior
Shutterstock

It also aims to break the design mould, too. Sketches from Benoy have the coffee counter moving to the middle of the store, and being round in nature, allowing space for customers to gather around and chit-chat over their morning cup of java. While coolers can’t be removed from the walls without becoming an obstruction, “we are playing around with interrupting the refrigeration perimeter, like with a dry-product display in a different colour,” adds Boriak. “This would provide opportunities to cross-sell, like a salad from refrigeration with a dry product, like nuts, to add to the salad.”

In keeping with the kale theme (and given most of the walls will still be refrigeration), she says the goal is to make a brand statement with “patterned green tile flooring.” The Benoy team are experimenting with a “dynamic diagonal pattern which evokes a movement, much like a wave that invites you and carries you with it. Eye-catching and something that draws you in.” That would tie-in to other green touches being considered, like the growing of herbs from hanging planters.

Boriak says the KaleMart24 reflects a design philosophy “that we have seen prevailing since the pandemic, which is to maximize every physical inch and space opportunity to create an experience—service and brand—and not just a transactional event.” She feels this has been traditionally overlooked within the c-store category. “A c-store is essentially that, to provide convenience, but it does not mean the brand experience should be neglected. That brief moment of browsing for an on-the-go snack is an opportunity for the c-store brand to create a lasting impression of a pleasant brand experience through nice décor, scent, music and, of course, the reliability of carrying people’s favourite products or becoming the store with healthier on-the-go snack choices and the environment that actually goes with that.

[Read more: "KaleMart24 announces location for retail debut"]

Experimenting at all levels

While KaleMart24 is starting from a blank slate, existing brands are also challenging the status quo in design with concept stores, remodels and out-of-the-box sketches for possible future builds.

“Every year, we see interesting designs inspired by forward-thinking from our large corporate partners,” says Chris Soucie, director of sales and marketing at McCowan Design & Manufacturing. “Overall, the entire industry is trying out new ideas, new formats and interesting designs.”

“These changes are being inspired from an evolution in the oil and gas industry to EV, migrations to cashierless grocery sites and an overall change in customer demands and expectations in convenience shopping,” he adds, pointing as an example of an expectation that c-stores support local.

“Research shows a growing migration in communities towards supporting local suppliers,” says Soucie. “And so, the future is looking like c-stores will become more of a micro-market within a community where you can get fresh bread from a local bakery, honey or produce products from local farmers. This is an exciting trend and huge opportunity for all c-store operators.”

7-Eleven interior with server and patron
7-Eleven

Making room for foodservice

How will this trend shift store design? “In many future formats, we are seeing new space dedicated to local or craft-type products,” notes Soucie. “In these areas, you will see woodgrains or rustic-style finishes, warm colours designed to generate a ‘small batch’ locally made emotional response from shoppers.”

When it comes to new builds, brands are also investing in larger footprints. “They want to be able to offer a modern c-store design that incorporates space for open-concept QSRs,” says Linda Thompson, managing partner at Fuel Partners. “These designs invite the consumer to linger longer and improve customer experiences.”

In London, Ont., for instance, Canco partnered with Pita Pit for a location on 1255 Kilally Rd. that features an open-concept QSR experience inside their One Stop convenience store.

7-Eleven Canada, meanwhile, has designed and launched new dine-in seating areas at licensed locations in two provinces so far.

In Alberta, the chain now has seven locations with licensed dining. And in May, a location in Niagara Falls began offering dine-in, after undergoing a remodel to add an enclosed seating area and a license to serve beer and wine to customers of age was secured. This is 7-Eleven Canada’s second location with a full-menu dining experience in Ontario; the first opened in December in Leamington after that location underwent a complete remodel.

“7-Eleven Canada is a food-first business with over 130 fresh food and beverage options, many of which are prepared on location,” says Marc Goodman, vice-president and general manager of 7-Eleven Canada. “At our new licensed restaurants, our adult guests can enjoy a glass of beer or wine alongside their meal for dine-in, take-out or delivery.”

In addition to a menu of beer and wine for of-age guests, diners can choose from a menu of food offerings, including chicken sandwiches, potato wedges and pizza.

[Read more: "7-Eleven begins serving beer and wine at Niagara Falls location"]

“The design of our dine-in spaces is increasingly important, with an emphasis on maintaining an open concept that complements the retail space,” says Goodman. “Low pony walls designate the licensed dining area, and allow for good visibility. Spacious dining areas are furnished with comfortable seating for 10 tables and chairs, lean bars and stools, as well as digital signage, music and free Wi-Fi. The dining areas signal 7-Eleven Canada is first and foremost a food destination to be enjoyed on- or off-premise. We continue to learn and will undoubtedly evolve as we lean into the food business.”

As the channel evolves to embrace new categories, from foodservice to beverage alcohol, better-for-you snacks and more, as well as serve a new generation of consumers, store layout and design are also undergoing an exciting evolution. 

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