Why convenience stores (even the big chains) should lean into local

paper shopping bag with Local love tag

Convenience stores, corner stores, bodegas, mini-marts, whatever you call them in your area, they were a lifeline to many during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early days, when people were avoiding crowds, long lines at supermarkets, and empty shelves at big box stores, convenience stores offered day-to-day essentials and opportunities for brief human interaction. They became less about energy drinks and bags of chips on-the-go and more about getting what you needed. In some cases, corner stores evolved into community hubs or third places, a reinforcing connection with the local neighbourhood. 

And, as we began to realize the toll the pandemic was taking on our small businesses, community members rallied around local establishments.

In 2020, nearly 70% of consumers in both Canada and the United States primarily shopped locally in order to strengthen the local economy. In the Jackman Human Insights Study, our ongoing proprietary consumer research, we found that 37% of consumers felt a sense of responsibility to those around them and that local sources have become the most trusted to keep consumers safe. 

As the name implies, these stores have traditionally been about convenience, rather than selection or value. Consumers know what to expect when they walk in -- the products and even the store layouts are predictable. It is hardly a memorable shopping experience. But this is beginning to change and even some of the bigger players are starting to transform.

Here we look at some ways in which the landscape of convenience stores is changing and share our advice on what the big chains can learn from smaller stores.

Small stores think big 

New, trendy corner stores are emerging, their shelves stocked with healthier on-the-go options and goods from small, local businesses. Some have evolved their traditional store formats, adding cafes and patios where their neighbours can enjoy a coffee or a quick bite. These include: 

POPBOX Mrkt. in Toronto is turning the convenience store model on its head by skipping the junk food in favour of grass fed dairy, gourmet chocolates, healthy juices, and fresh salads. It carries mostly local brands and also offers a full cafe. The Lucky Penny Corner Store and Cafe, also in Toronto, carries a careful selection of locally sourced foods. In addition to coffee, it offers fresh homemade sandwiches, breads and pastries from local bakeries, local cold-pressed juices, farm fresh eggs, locally grown fruits and veggies, and house-made dips and sauces.

Foxtrot Market, a smaller chain in the U.S. which recently raised $42 million in funding, is also an example of the redefined convenience store. It offers typical corner store food like chips and ice cream, combined with groceries, pantry items, and beer and wine. The large, bright stores have places for customers to sit and enjoy coffee or company but for those who don't want to come in, Foxtrot promises delivery in under an hour. 

Big players make changes (But they're still missing an ppportunity)

To their credit, the big players in the convenience store space are also evolving. 7-Eleven, the biggest convenience store in the world, launched its first Evolution Store in 2019, featuring craft beer, a taqueria, and Scan & Pay technology. There are now eight Evolution Stores across the U.S., each of which include a restaurant concept (its latest Evolution Store in Manassas, Virginia, actually includes two restaurant options). Similarly, Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., the parent company of Circle K, rolled out its Fresh Food Fast initiative in 2020, expanding its food offering within its convenience stores. In January 2021, the company partnered with McGill University to launch a Retail Innovation Lab store. 

While these initiatives seem to be focusing on implementing new technologies and fresh food offerings, the big players are still missing out on an opportunity to connect with local communities. Most locations remain cookie-cutter, with the same products they've carried for decades and the same layout as the store two towns over. There is still nothing local or memorable about these shopping experiences. 

Duane Reade in New York City is a great example of a store that's embraced the connection to the city it's in. Duane Reade pharmacies are practically on every street corner in Manhattan. With well over 50 years of history in the city, all New Yorkers know the store's name and most think fondly of it. Yet, a decade ago or so the iconic brand was struggling. They fixed this by leaning into local, adopting New York living made easy not just as a tag line but as a guiding philosophy. Customers in a busy city wanted simple shopping, so Duane Reade redesigned the stores from top to bottom, changing the design, layout, products, and services, to give them just that.

We've seen big brands in other industries successfully lean into local and customize locations to reflect the community they are in. Nike Unite stores are designed as community centerpieces to help locals connect with sports, the brand, and each other. Displays feature local landmarks, stores carry a curated selection of local specialties, and the dressing rooms are hung with maps of local areas that shoppers might want to explore. Lululemon brings its community-based retail model to life in each of its stores, particularly its experiential stores. The store in Chicago's Lincoln Park includes an area devoted to local businesses and features pictures of local brand ambassadors on the wall of the restaurant.  Many other brands from Anthropologie to Warby Parker are making efforts to design spaces that feature local artists and fit in with the nearby architecture rather than just mimic their other locations. 

Big convenience stores can continue to evolve

Big convenience stores should be learning from these other industries and the small players in their own category. Here are some ideas to get started:

Think local

As more people continue to work remotely and consumers lives shift closer to home post-pandemic, there will be a continued desire to be able to get what you need in your neighbourhood as well as the drive to support local businesses.

  • Lean into the local communities. Curate your products, store design, and footprint to the local market and reach consumers where they are.
  • Take your role as neighbourhood store to heart. Customers have tons of e-commerce options to get what they need, they come to you to support local. To earn loyalty, make sure they feel the human connection in the shopping experience.
  • Make your marketing local. Design materials for a particular store rather than the entire chain.

Strive to be a community destination

The pandemic reset our priorities, leading many to place increased value on community connections.

  • Rather than just being a quick and easy place to pick up snacks, transform to become a destination integral to the local community, a place for human connections to happen.
  • Add features”such as a stylish seating area or outdoor patio”that will bring people in and encourage them to stay.

Keep evolving

Today's consumers expect convenience, it is no longer enough for that to be your only offering.

  • Continue to find ways to engage and inspire your consumers by evolving your product selection and service offerings in response to their changing preferences and needs.
  • Hire locally, use these employees as ambassadors to the community and get them to help you tailor products and services to the changing needs of their neighbours.


Regardless of what you call them, convenience stores may still conjure images of giant sodas, weak coffee, and aisles of junk food, but that is changing. New stores are offering fresh food, fun gathering places, and a way to support local brands and businesses. Post-pandemic, the big players in the game need to be taking their cue from these new disruptors and change their model and their merchandise to keep up with today's consumers.

Stefan Read is SVP engagement advisory, strategy practice lead at Jackman Reinvents. He works on Jackman’s proprietary Customer Engagement Reinvention service.

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this guest article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News Canada.

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