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JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Industry insiders have known it for decades and now so does the rest of the world: convenience stores are modern marvels.
Convenience stores took center stage on The History Channel's "Modern Marvels" Monday night. And as the narrator explained c-stores are "America's go-to pit stops -- catering to our cravings, quenching our thirsts." But what many viewers did not realize is that convenience stores are about more than coffee, cigarettes and snacks. "These retail powerhouses take in one of every $23 spent each day in the U.S.," the narrator added.
Featured in the Dec. 26 episode were several big-named chains like Wawa, QuickChek and 7-Eleven. The show also spotlighted stores that are lesser-known on the national scene like Hutch's convenience stores and travel centers found mostly in Oklahoma, and Ma & Pa's Grocery Express in Fond du Lac, Wis.
The episode begins where every c-store operator's day begins: 6 a.m. or "zero hour,” explaining the next three hours will be the busiest in a c-store's day. During the morning rush, the narrator said, "convenience stores coast to coast sell more than 11 million cups of coffee." Add to it millions of doughnuts, bagels, muffins and breakfast biscuits, and customers spend $1.7 billion in convenience stores each day, the show added.
The main reason for such outstanding business: c-stores are fast. The average convenience store visit takes 3 ½ minutes compared to 41 minutes in the typical grocery store, the show explained.
And the layout of a store has a lot to do with speeding up the visit. As architect Joseph Bona, president of the retail division at CBX, explained, a convenience store -- regardless of size -- should be divided into three zones. Zone one (nearest the entrance) is the decompression zone. Zone two is the impulse zone and zone three (furthest from the entrance) is the destination zone.
In addition to exploring the day-to-day operations of convenience stores -- from stocking inventory to security measures -- the show also highlighted the history and threw in some interesting facts about such c-store staples as the Slurpee (the most well-known name of the flavored frozen beverage), beef jerky and the lottery.
For example, what most viewers probably did not know is that the owner of a small Kansas convenience store invented the predecessor to the Slurpee by accident in the 1950s. It seems the store's fountain machine was broken one hot summer day so the owner put several bottles of Coca-Cola in the freezer and the customers loved the slushy concoction that resulted.
Beef jerky, another favorite item in any c-store dates back to the late 1880s, according to the episode. But it is also out of this world, so to speak: the smoked beef snack is a favorite among astronauts in space, it added.
As for dreams of hitting rich, lottery sales have also made winners of convenience stores, the show added. At least $30 billion is spent on lottery tickets in c-stores annually. And the luckiest place to buy a lottery ticket in the United States? Fond du Lac, Wis. The town sells the most winning tickets in the country, according to the show, with more than $500 million worth of winning tickets purchased in just five stores along a stretch of road called The Miracle Mile.
Specifically, Ma & Pa's Grocery Express sells about 1.5 million tickets a year and has sold more than $273 million in winning tickets since 1994. Of those winning tickets, four topped $1 million. "Luck gravitates here," one customer said.
Convenience stores began their journey as a modern marvel in 1927 when Johnny Green operated a Southland Company icehouse in Dallas. The store originally sold blocks of ice to customers before modern refrigerators became a household must. He was open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and his store soon turned into a gathering place for the community. Green soon added milk, bread and eggs to his product mix. Within a few years he added several other icehouses to his portfolio before rebranding his chain of stores 7-Eleven in 1946.
But what lies ahead for the industry? According to "Modern Marvels" it could be fully automated stores like SmartMart in Memphis, Tenn. Or perhaps Pops convenience store in Arcadia, Okla. The Route 66 store not only features more than 600 different flavors of soda from 17 different countries, but it also features a 66-foot high pop bottle out front. Since opening in 2007, Pops has become a gathering place for people. Sound familiar?