mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

An examination of the c-store industry...

A couple weeks ago, Tyler Cowan at Marginal Revolution wondered why gas station convinience stores seem to be better than 7-11's. I'm not sure I'd agree with that, but it as someone who has eaten more gas station hot dogs than I care to admit, I figured it was worth some thought.

While I'm not a 7-11 regular, I do stop at 7-11 more than any other convinience store, because there happens to be pretty much right down the street from me - my townhouse court feeds into a bigger road, which ends at a strip mall that has, among other things, a 7-11. I find myself stopping there when I don't feel like making coffee (or when I forget to put water in the coffeepot before setting the timer) or need a quick breakfast, like when I'm on my way to a yard sale/hamfest/auction or have to go into work on a Saturday. They have decent coffee, in a variety of flavors, and pretty good donuts. BSOM has convinced me to make that our Hamfest breakfast stop instead of Dunkin' Donuts - he likes it because he can get green tea and potato chips for breakfast.

But I've never actually gone grocery shopping at 7-11 or any convinience store - I see them as a place to grab a snack or a cup of coffee, not ingredients. I think that convinience stores have become more resturant and less grocery store. Why? Because it's getting rarer to find a time when grocery stores aren't open. Right around the corner from that 7-11 is the Giant where I a decent chunk of my shopping (what I don't do at Trader Joe's or BJ's). If I need a couple quick items, I go to Giant - it's cheaper, and they have pretty much everything I could want. Sure, they aren't open 24 hours a day like 7-11 - but they are open 6am to midnight most days, which covers any time I've ever needed to stock up on ice cream and hot pockets. And given the number of supermarkets within a 10 minute drive, I'm sure I could find a 24-hour store if I really needed to make a ham sandwich at 3 am.

I don't think the gas station with better c-store claim works in my area - most of the gas stations have crappy c-stores - a couple packs of smokes and a cooler of drinks. The usual excepts are those with real convinience stores - 7-11's or Royal Farms (a local Baltimore chain).

But I think being locally adaptable is one thing that helps competitors to 7-11. Other than the big seven-stick-stick, there aren't really any big national convinience store chains. Instead, you have bunch of convinience store chains that are huge in a small area. Maryland has Royal Farms. When I'm driving up to NJ via PA, I usually stop at the Tom's off exit 40A - they have good coffee, plus donuts from Maple Donuts, a local chain. New Jersey has Quick Check, which was important enough to the punk band Bouncing Souls that they wrote a song about it. And Iowa has BSOM's favorite, Kum and Go.

I don't know why c-stores tend to be so regional - if it's economies of scale in advertising or procurement, or if it's that they can be locally responsive to what regional customers want in a way that 7-11 can't be. But that seems to be the case.

On a side note, one thing that does seem to have happened in recent years is that convinience stores have started brewing decent coffee. MadAnthony drinks a lot of coffee, especially on long drives, and so I've drank a lot of convinience store coffee. Most of it's pretty good. I think part of it is that Starbucks and the like have gotten Americans to expect more from their coffee. Also, those foil-wrapped pre-filled filter packs have kept coffee fresher - and made brewing it idiot-proof.


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