A question I’m often asked is what does the convenience store of the future look like? In truth, there are many different answers to this, and we all know there are many different types of convenience stores and missions that they target.
But if you had to press me for a concept that embodies the full breadth of different convenience missions and how they can be met in a modern, customer-centric, welcoming store environment, the best practice example that I’d likely quote would be Choice Market, in how it effectively meets a wide range of food-for-now and broader food-for-later needs.
I’ve been following the development of the concept for a while, and we were privileged to welcome founder Mike Fogarty onto our RATIONAL webinar series last year. But nothing beats actually experiencing the store concept in real life.
So it was a real pleasure and a fantastic learning experience to visit Mike, and to see his Choice stores, in Denver last month. The concept lived up to and exceeded our expectations. Here are our key takeouts:
1. The concept is easy to shop. And crucially it’s resonating with customers. We visited its third store, opened last year on Bannock Street in part of an up and coming part of Denver, at the base of a recently constructed apartment block. All the features that we talk about as making a great convenience store are here. The residential catchment will grow further, with several nearby apartment blocks still under construction. We’ve little doubt that many of those moving in will use the Choice store as an extension of their fridge or pantry. On that ease of shop point, Aifi technology is used in-store, enabling shoppers to just walk out with their goods once they’ve checked in with the app. In contrast to the Amazon Fresh and Amazon Go stores, here it’s about adding the tech into an existing store concept, albeit into new stores. It therefore feels like a better case usage of the tech, a customer focused proposition onto which the tech has been overlayed, rather than a store where the proposition feels like it’s had to be adapted to fit the needs of the tech itself.
2. More growth is coming. A new just walk out style store is opening this month in a hospital in Aurora, just outside Denver, while the business is now considering market entry into another major US city.
3. The checkout free, app based technology fits with customers. Clearly it’s particularly useful for those living close by, but Choice is getting good value from its move in this area, and it’s now contributing to a broader initiative to look afresh at how it drives loyalty, with a next gen personalised loyalty initiative in the pipeline.
4. Traditional checkouts are notable by their absence from the Bannock Street store. Customers who choose not to use the just walk out technology check out via digital kiosks, located alongside the food-to-go counter.
5. Food-to-go drives the business. Right now counter based food-to-go accounts for half of sales. It’s therefore intrinsic to the proposition, and particularly key as a footfall driver. The menu is kept relatively simple, but it’s done well, with good stretch across plant-based options and also a good dose of seasonality added in. Mike’s inspiration for setting up the business came from the ever impressive Wawa – growing up in Philadelphia, he is very familiar with the convenience / foodservice operation. But he’s taken this as a springboard and developed it further.
6. Choice partners with a local coffee roaster for its barista coffee offer, but has developed its own in house counter based sushi offer. In fact, there is a strong focus on prepared in house products on the shelves as well as behind the counter, helping to add to the differentiated nature of the proposition.
7. Natural and better for you products contribute the bulk of the grocery offer here. That said, Mike has said this is simply to reflect the catchment, and this could change if the local customer base wanted something different. However, here it impresses – there’s a good representation of emerging brands in-store. Draft kombucha and nitro cold brew on tap are good examples of this thinking.
8. Newer stores will help stretch and develop the business model. A new Latin American food counter concept has been added into the latest hospital store, while one of next year’s openings will include a bar.
9. In brief, it’s a store that is a pleasure to shop. Considerable depth of products helps meet a full range of daily consumer needs, in fact stretching well beyond what most US convenience stores offer. And the unique tech that underpins the proposition gives a strong platform from which to develop further. Definitely one to watch.