Gas pump inflation time shopping: Less gas, bigger bags of chips, lots of frozen pizza and cheap coffee

Convenience stores at gas stations usually serve as the perfect alternative to a grocery store when all that is needed is a carton of water, a couple of bags of crisps, or a carton of milk or coffee late in the day on the way home from work. This impulse buying behavior is a good measure of consumer health at any given time.

“The price of gas and everything is a lot higher, but people have to drive,” said Ari Kotler, president and CEO of Arko Corp., a convenience store operator. They still come to the pump but they recalculate their road trips. “

Kotler has been observing shopping patterns at ARKO-operated gas pumps and connected convenience stores. The company operates nearly 1,400 convenience stores, most with gas stations, in small towns and rural communities in 28 states.

He’s noticed two trends during shoppers’ visits to gas stations.

“Compared to the same period last year, people come to the pump more frequently but instead of filling the entire tank, they fill half or a quarter of the tank at a time,” he said. “They drive fewer and shorter distances.”

At the same time, the number of consumers shopping in convenience stores of the gas station is less. “But when they come into the store, they’re boosting their purchases,” he said. “Instead of buying just one or two items, they make a bigger cart, maybe all week.”

Bigger bags of chips, lots of frozen pizza and 99 cents of coffee

With consumers focusing more on value pricing, Kotler said ARKO is resetting its offerings, services and promotions to try to keep prices low and increase sales.

“In the past, it was one drink and a small bag of chips,” he said. “Now they’re shopping for value. So it’s a bigger bag of chips for $4.59, say a small bag for $2.29. They can have two servings of it.”

Likewise with beverages, he said, the two bottles that outperform the smaller volumes such as 12- and 15-pack beverage cans.

Cheap coffee, takeaway sandwiches, and frozen pizza are also bestsellers among budget shoppers.

Since the beginning of the year, Kotler said, ARKO has added fully automated bean-to-cup coffee machines in more than 500 stores. “This is self-service and takes away the labor cost for us. So we can sell hot coffee and ice for 99 cents,” he said.

The company has also invested in additional off-the-shelf coolers at more than 600 locations where shoppers can pick up sandwiches and frozen foods like pizza, hamburgers and TV dinners.

“Our peanut butter and jelly sandwich is $1.29, and our ham and cheese sandwich is $3.99,” said Michael Bloom, the company’s chief marketing officer. “We are similar to grocery store prices but maybe $1 to $3 less.

Pizza is usually among the most purchased items in gas station stores.

“A lot of people can’t go to a restaurant right now. Our family’s frozen pizzas $5.69 to $9.59 is a very popular item right now,” Kotler said.

Plus, he said, stores offer deals like buy two, get one free and gas discounts when customers sign up for the company’s loyalty program.

“All of those savings are accumulating to consumers,” Kotler said. “Every few months we try to reinvent our stores to stay competitive, stay in business, and stay connected to shoppers in this environment.”

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