It might seem as if there’s a convenience store on every street corner in the Pikes Peak region. 7-Eleven dominates the market with dozens of stores, while Loaf ‘N Jug and Circle K are among chains with multiple stores.
Even so, more locations are on the way as convenience store chains see continued opportunities for expansion in high-growth areas of the region, and as time-strapped consumers continue to clamor for the quick, in-and-out service that convenience stores offer:
• Dallas-based 7-Eleven, which has roughly 50 area stores, says three to four more are planned this year and another five to six are coming in 2013. Among the new sites: A former Bennigan’s restaurant near Academy Boulevard and North Carefree Circle will be razed to make way for a store, while another location is targeted on Woodmen Road, west of Marksheffel Road.
• Loaf ‘N Jug, an arm of the Kroger grocery chain that owns Kings Soopers, has about 20 stores. Another store is planned southeast of Northgate Boulevard and Voyager Parkway on the Springs’ far north side.
• Circle K, based in suburban Phoenix and with about 20 locations in the area, plans a store on the city’s northeast side, at Tutt Boulevard and North Carefree.
• Midwest-based Kum & Go has aggressively entered Colorado Springs with plans to build 20 to 25 stores over five years. Its first location opened in May at Academy and Vickers Drive. Stores are under construction east of Interstate 25 and InterQuest Parkway, west of Powers Boulevard and Woodmen Road and at Powers and North Carefree, among other locations.
• San Antonio-based Valero, which operates corner stores under the Valero and Diamond Shamrock names, has about 30 area locations. A spokesman said the company plans no additional stores in the area, but occasionally looks to remodel and expand existing locations.
“They sell time,” Jeff Lenard, a National Association of Convenience Stores spokesman in suburban Washington, D.C., said of the popularity of the stores. “When they started back in the 1920s, they sold staple items like milk and bread and eggs after the groceries closed at 5. Over time, what they have sold has changed, but they (continue) to sell time. It’s get them in, get them out, get them on their way, and do it without a hassle.
“We are becoming more time-stressed and time is money,” he added. “And people will give you money if you give them time.”
There are about 150,000 convenience stores nationwide, Lenard said. With a U.S. population of roughly 311 million, that means there’s one store for nearly every 2,100 people.
Using that ratio, the Springs-area’s 2010 population of about 634,000 could accommodate nearly 300 convenience stores — meaning there’s room for growth.
States such as Colorado and cities such as Colorado Springs — with rising populations of young people and outdoor enthusiasts — are prime targets for convenience store chains, Lenard said.
“You’re talking about people that just want an energy bar or a bottle of water or whatever,” he said. “Whether they’re in their car or on their bike, stores are where people are.”
That’s why several new convenience stores are going up in fast-growing parts of the Pikes Peak region that have been relatively under served up to now, said Mark Useman, a retail specialist with Sierra Commercial Real Estate in Colorado Springs who has represented Kum & Go in its local land acquisitions.
“We’ve had decent growth in our city, and there are areas of the city that haven’t seen the expansion or growth of these convenience stores in the last four or five years because of the slowdown of our economy,” Useman said.
Kum & Go evaluated several markets before deciding to enter Colorado Springs, Useman said. The family-owned chain, based in West Des Moines, Iowa, likes secondary cities where it believes it can have an impact, he said.
7-Eleven has sought to expand in markets where it already has large numbers of successful locations, while also acquiring existing stores in markets that are near areas where 7-Eleven operates, said spokeswoman Margaret Chabris.
The chain, a wholly owned subsidiary of a Japanese retail conglomerate, has nearly 48,000 stores worldwide, according to its website; 7-Eleven opened more than 600 stores last year in the U.S. and Canada, and expects to open another 630 this year, Chabris said.
“We’re on one of the biggest accelerated growth strategies I’ve seen in quite some time,” she said. “You will see more 7-Eleven stores. What we have found is that when there are more 7-Eleven stores in a geographic area or our market area, people are more comfortable. They know what you have to offer. They can count on you being open. It increases sales for all the stores because people just know what to expect.”
At 7-Eleven, customers have come to expect familiar products, such as the popular frozen Slurpee drink that has its own website and Facebook page; 24/7 store hours; and promotional campaigns for products that are often tied into movies or television shows.
7-Eleven also prides itself on a sophisticated retail information system that lets store operators track inventory to determine what’s selling and what’s not — allowing them to stock particular items, and their quantity, to fit a particular store and its location, Chabris said.
“In the past decade or two, we have had a real laser-like focus on what the consumer and customer wants,” she said.
Kum & Go is hoping to grab some of those customers. Its Colorado Springs stores are 5,000 square feet each and built on 1.5-acre sites — buildings and parcels that are larger than its stores in other markets and its rivals in the Pikes Peak region. Stores have full kitchens, while fuel pumping areas have more room for motorists, Useman said.
“They cook fresh food,” he said of Kum & Go. “They are coming in with a different prototype and should take some of the pie away from the other stores.”
But even as convenience stores expand, they also face challenges.
Convenience stores fight a perception that their prices are much higher than their rivals. It’s true prices can be more, Lenard said, but convenience stores have high real estate costs to go along with big electricity bills that result from coolers and freezers for cold foods and drinks. Also, because their stores are smaller, they can’t buy products as cheaply as larger groceries, Lenard said.
Still, milk, soda fountain drinks and other items are competitively priced when compared with other retailers, he said. And price isn’t as much of an issue for some customers — even in a slumping economy — if they have a need they want to fill in a hurry.
“You don’t think about your stock portfolio when you’re thirsty, you get something to drink,” he said. “And when you’re hungry, you get something to eat, you don’t worry about the economy. So, it’s more impulse items. A few bucks here to solve a need or to reward yourself doesn’t seem so bad in the scheme of things.”
Meanwhile, convenience store chains aren’t just competing against each other; they’re also fighting larger groceries and, increasingly, Walgreens and other drug stores that sell milk, soda and food items, Lenard said. Even discount dollar stores in some parts of the south are selling cigarettes, he said.
Convenience stores also wrestle with changes in consumer buying habits when it comes to two longtime profit makers: gas and tobacco sales.
Soaring gas prices have driven motorists to seek the cheapest gas they can find, even if it means saving a penny or two. Not only do convenience stores compete with service stations, but with grocery chains whose loyalty programs reward consumers with additional savings on gas. Profits on gas sales are only 3 cents per gallon to begin with, Lenard said.
Meanwhile, tobacco sales are down because fewer people are smoking.
“Your two big traffic drivers are facing a tough road,” Lenard said.
That’s why Springs-area consumers are likely to see more and higher quality food prepared the way they want it, and expanded drink items; food accounts for 23 percent of convenience store sales, while beverages are another 30 percent, Lenard said.
Despite those challenges, the overall state of the convenience store industry has been healthy; three of the last four years have been the most profitable on record for the industry as a whole, Lenard said.
“There are huge challenges when it comes to the future of fuel, the future of tobacco and all of the issues related to credit card fees. And not to forget competition,” he said. “But if you can deliver what the customer wants and solve their needs, and do it fast, you can do very well.”
Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228 Twitter @richladen
Facebook Rich Laden