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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Over the past several months Convenience Store News has reported on several convenience store operators looking to grow their portfolio in the Carolinas. In the month of July alone, three separate stories highlighted retailers looking to set up shop in either North Carolina or South Carolina.
Most notably, Sheetz has called North Carolina its No. 1 market for growth in its quest to reach the 500-store mark within the next few years. Currently, the Altoona, Pa.-based c-store operator has 394 locations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, with the majority in its home state.
"We knew Sheetz had an interest in North Carolina. As they moved south and we knew that, because their distribution center is located in Pennsylvania, we were probably the most south they could go," Gary Harris, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum & Convenience Marketers, told CSNews Online.
To that end, Sheetz recently unveiled plans to open a large distribution facility in North Carolina by 2014. Reports put the facility at approximately 200,000 square feet, and it would be accessible to the state's Triangle and Triad areas.
Since it opened its first North Carolina store in Walkerton in 2004, Sheetz has been greeted by a big dose of southern hospitality. "We asked Sheetz to join our organization and they did," Harris said. "Sheetz is a great member and we like having them. They are cutting -edge with clean, nice locations and they challenge the competition."
In addition to Sheetz, which hopes to open 40 percent of its new stores going forward in North Carolina, Sunoco is also looking at opportunities in North Carolina in its bid to expand retail operations in the Southeast.
But all this development on the c-store front does not necessarily mean North Carolina has been underserved by the industry, Harris explained. "We just have a lot of competition in North Carolina," he said, adding that at one time, the state ranked among the highest number of convenience stores per capita.
Harris went on to note that a lot of companies that were, at one time, interested in operating convenience stores are now starting to back away. For example, he said, there was a lot of interest by some companies like Exxon in the 1990s to enter the retail business, but they are starting to return to traditional jobber roles. This has led to an opening for new companies to put down stakes.
"I would say North Carolina is pretty much saturated, but new companies come in and are able to carve out a niche," he said, and North Carolina customers like what they see: competitive prices and new, modern stores.
The recent uptick in c-store activity is not limited just to North Carolina. Travel down the interstate to South Carolina and you find a similar story. For example, The Parker Cos., which operates 24 Parker's stores in southeast Georgia and South Carolina, has plans to add to its Bluffton, S.C. area holdings with two more locations.
QuikTrip also made news with its plans to more than double the number of new locations it will open in Anderson County, S.C., from three (announced in the spring) to seven, as of a new report yesterday. QuikTrip's first South Carolina store will be located in Boiling Springs and is scheduled to open on Oct. 8, company executives reported. The chain is planning an ambitious schedule, hoping to open a store every three weeks. Like North Carolina, South Carolina has not suffered from a lack of convenience stores before all this activity.
"I think the market, particularly the upstate, is rather saturated. We have a lot of convenience stores," Kenneth Cosgrove, president of the South Carolina Association of Convenience Stores, told CSNews Online. Cosgrove is also vice president of Piedmont Petroleum Corp., a family-run convenience chain based in Greenville, S.C.
"South Carolina is hot right now and there is a lot of building going on," he added. "Greenville, where we are located, is ranked as one of the best small towns in America to live. There is a lot of movement."
And it may just be South Carolina's time, he observed, adding that most c-store operators have previously focused on bigger areas in the Southeast such as Atlanta. "For a long time, South Carolina was off the radar. People are beginning to realize South Carolina is a great place to live and raise your family," Cosgrove said.
As a right-to-work state, South Carolina also fosters a great environment for small local businesses, he noted. As for the increased competition, Cosgrove expects the industry to step up to the challenge. "The rising tide lifts all boats," he said.