JERSEY CITY, N.J. – New Jersey's historical nickname is “The Crossroads of the Revolution.” Born and raised in the Garden State, I now call it “The Crossroads of Convenience” and the stakes in this battle are my fellow Millennials — those consumers born between 1977 and 1995.
I was born in the late 1980s, so in many ways, I’m a typical consumer from this generation. But before you assume I’m writing this article in my parents' basement, let me just clarify that I’m writing from their dining room while drinking a Dulce de Leche iced latte from Wawa. (It's a new flavor and it's delicious.)
This month, Convenience Store News published its second-annual Consumer Insights Special Edition, powered by CSNews' exclusive Realities of the Aisle consumer research study. This time, the special edition focused entirely on the shopping habits of Millennials.
I see many correlations between the habits of my peers and the findings of the CSNews study.
Among the Millennials I know, "fresh" consumable products -- particularly proprietary products unique to the retailer -- are the primary motivation to shop a c-store. Take, for instance, the Hess Express store located on Route 9 in Sayreville, N.J., where my friend Jacqueline stopped on her way to visit me. I was interested to see that she picked up a snack pack of fresh grapes, cheese and crackers. (Before my Italian mother reads this article and gets upset with me — for the record, I had food in the house but mostly snacks like hummus, pretzels and chips, and the nectar of the Millennials — beer.)
Later that day, two more of our friends — one of them a vegan — stopped by carting Jarritos Mexican colas and falafels from a local deli. Just a few hours later, we all went out for sushi.
Snacking is a very popular option when you don't have time to sit down for a full meal. From looking at the research, I know I'm in good company whenever I go on a c-store snack run. In fact, 66 percent of Millennials indicated they buy snacks at c-stores, compared to 50 percent of total respondents.
Millennials, particularly men, are also more likely to stop at c-stores for prepared food for immediate consumption. I see this trend exhibited by my brother, Justin, a Millennial in his early 30s who commutes more than 45 minutes to work as a high-school teacher. He also moonlights as a DJ and musician, and is the father of a toddler. He and his wife look for convenient dinner options on their way home from work and often stop at Wawa in the late afternoon or early evening. As indicated in the research, 4 p.m. to 6:59 p.m. is when Millennials tend to frequent c-stores the most.
“Sometimes, we have Wawa dinner nights,” said Justin, who happens to detest leftovers. He enjoys Wawa's hoagies and what he calls "comfort foods," like the retailer's proprietary Hot Turkey Bowl. He stops at his local store about two to three times a week -- the same frequency as nearly a third of Millennials.
When I asked Justin the most important factor for him in shopping a convenience store, he said he looks for a wide assortment of products and fast checkout time. “It’s not convenient if I have to wait on line," he said.
After talking to my brother, I decided to chat with a consumer from the younger end of the Millennial spectrum – CSNews' intern and self-declared "hipster" Danielle. I found similarities in her consumer habits.
Like other Millennials, Danielle, aged 22, is most likely to stop at a convenience store on her way to or from work or school. A commuting senior at William Paterson University, she often stops at her local QuickChek store for a freshly made sandwich or a pick-me-up beverage, like a hot chocolate.
She identified price/value as the factor most important to her when purchasing prepared food at a c-store, joining the 76 percent of Millennial respondents and 73 percent of total respondents in CSNews' research study who also choose price/value as the most important factor.
“I’m a broke college student, so I don’t want to spend a lot for food. And because I’m always on the go, I look for something that’s fresh and has a good price point,” said Danielle.
She pointed out that for about $5, she can pair her QuickChek sandwich with a granola bar or a coffee, whereas at a deli or sandwich shop she would spend a lot more.
Danielle will typically stop into a c-store about once a week, consistent with the finding that more Millennial females than males tend to frequent their favorite c-stores more often.
The "Hipster" Millennial
You’ve probably heard the term “hipster” before — and not just three paragraphs ago. But do you actually know what a hipster is?
I've found that a hipster is not just someone who listens to Vampire Weekend and wears Converse sneakers. My theory is that all Millennials have hipster tendencies, whether they care to admit it or not.
My best friend, Adrienne, aged 26, is a journalist, social media professional and someone I consider to be especially in tune with our generation. She defines the essence of the Millennial hipster social movement as "the avoidance of anything that might be considered 'mainstream.'" The flip side, she added, is that being a hipster consumer ultimately leads to "conforming to non-conformity."
My other friend Melissa is a 24-year-old, self-declared hipster living in a Philadelphia neighborhood rich in immigrant culture. In her view, many convenience store chains are “sterile" and not in a good way — cold, corporate and boring, were some adjectives she used.
“I think that kind of predictability is comforting in a way,” Melissa said. “For example, I know that if I walk into any 7-Eleven in the country, it will be more or less the same, but when I’m in my own town (Philadelphia) I want to experience the culture I moved here to find.”
So, in a way, Melissa is conforming to a new, non-mainstream environment in her attempt to be a non-conformist. "I’ll hit up 7-Eleven if there’s nothing else around," she said.
A Fickle Generation
It’s not that Millennials are fickle about where they shop for convenience. In fact, more than six in 10 Millennials shop at the same c-store each time, as indicated in the Realities of the Aisle research.
From my personal experience, it's that their attitudes toward the types of products they buy can be fickle, meaning that keeping Millennials engaged as consumers can be difficult for retailers.
Here are some examples I've heard among my friends: "I used to drink [craft beer] but then they were bought by [major brewer], so I’m not drinking it anymore." Or in regards to certain foods, "I won't buy this product because it contains too many processed ingredients," or "I only buy organic."
Being a hipster consumer is about being health- and image-conscious. When asked what she looks for in a convenience store, my friend Jen, aged 25 and a bit of a New York hipster, summed it up this way: “Healthy, actual, 'un-messed-with' food, because we’re too busy to cook and too vain to put junk in our bodies.”
Regarding the hipster's preference for organic, natural foods, Adrienne added, “I think people are getting more in tune with what they are putting in their bodies, and it’s sort of rebelling against the fast-food culture of ‘mainstream’ America."
Melissa also pointed out the hipster Millennials' preference for nostalgia — a throwback to a different era. At the time Melissa and I spoke about this topic, she mentioned she'd like to see more retailers offer nostalgic candy (i.e. Pop Rocks, Fun Dip, Big League Chew). I was also surprised to learn that Melissa wanted to see the return of old-fashioned in-store soda fountains.
You might be thinking, "Since when is a soda fountain an 'edgy' way to capture the youthful consumer?" Well, that's just the thing about Millennials. We often break our own rules.
No offense to my peers, but I don't see us setting the world on fire any time soon. We’re too busy finding jobs with paychecks that justify our college tuition bills. So, retailers, show us a little love and give us a good deal. Talk with us — not "at" us — on social media and reassure us that everything is going to be OK.
“C-stores are known for quickness and coffee, which I think are two important things to young people. So, they’ve got that covered,” said Adrienne. “And I don’t think they should transform themselves into ‘rebellious’ types either, because Millennials will perceive that as too childish. …I think Millennials want to feel emotion –- that they are cared about and get the most bang for their buck at the same time.”
Editor's note: This Bonus Content story is a complement to the April 2014 Convenience Store News Consumer Insights Special Edition. Click here  to see in-depth insights on why and how Millennials shop c-stores, mined from the 2014 CSNews Realities of the Aisle consumer research study.