Young and educated shop in c-stores, often on impulse

December 04, 2012

C-stores are a magnet for college-student traffic. Which tactics can supermarkets use to their advantage as well?

Are convenience stores beginning to pick off the cream of the young U.S. adult generation, perhaps at the expense of supermarkets?

A new NPD Group study, Making The Grade: Student Consumer Impact on the Retail Fuels and Convenience Marketplace, shows the inroads c-stores are making with the nation’s most educated tier of young consumers—as they shape their shopping habits away from home.

College students between 18 and 24 spent $5.2 billion on 351.4 million visits to c-stores during the 12 months ended June 2012. C-store merchandising works too:  31.9% of c-store purchases by college students are impulsive, versus a 22.7% incidence of impulse buys among other c-store shoppers, said NPD.

This overview data suggests to The Lempert Report that c-stores have a keen understanding of the lifestyles and round-the-clock food-buying and consumption patterns of college students. Cold beverages on the go, hot prepared food after a night of drinking, energy shots and caffeinated supplements, and between-class snacks are likely part of their significant appeals—as is the quick in-and-out access of these small-format shops.

We can’t say if students’ c-store preferences will stick after they graduate and move onto different kinds of lives in different places. But there should be some obvious lessons for supermarkets in the way c-stores make it easy for students to buy high-turn items, and similarly how Walgreens stores in dense markets like Manhattan lead with fresh food and ready-to-eat meals and chilled beverages to draw some of the heavy foot traffic outside to duck in for a quick purchase.

Since the nation’s 19 million college students (full- and part-time) spent a total of $76 billion during the same 12-month period, up $2 billion from a year earlier, it’s a safe bet that all kinds of food sellers will be targeting this group destined to become more important in the years ahead.