There is a scene in the 1994 movie, "Reality Bites," in which the main characters use a gas credit card at a convenience store to stock up on packaged food items as a way to satisfy their late-night junk cravings. Those of us born before the year 2000 associated the c-stores we grew up with as the place to get fuel, frozen sugary drinks, lottery tickets, alcohol and smokes. As a result, you would never think to go there for a square meal.
Fast forward 20 years to 2014 and the "Reality Bites" scene seems quaintly nostalgic by today’s c-store retail standards. Many chains now aim to offer equal, if not superior, food experiences to traditional quick-service restaurants such as Subway, McDonald’s, Quiznos and others. Some have even employed the “store-within-a-store” concept by partnering with one of those known brands.
In the Pittsburgh area, where CivicScience is headquartered, we have both Sheetz and supermarket chain Giant Eagle’s GetGo convenience stores featuring fresh food prepared on-site (sandwiches, salads, etc.) that put the pre-wrapped items of days past to shame. Some stores even have touchscreen ordering kiosks, where you can punch in your customized food desires.
Even with all these advances in technology, menus, services, personnel training and store layouts, though, it all comes down to consumers. When it comes to convenience store freshly prepared food -- also called by some as made to order -- what do consumers think and how do they behave?
Using CivicScience’s consumer polling and insights platform, U.S. consumers were asked what they think about the quality of today’s freshly prepared food offerings from c-stores when compared to the quality of fast-food restaurants. More than 3,600 responses were collected Aug. 14-Aug. 27.
Here’s what we learned: Most consumers (53 percent) believe freshly prepared food offered by convenience stores is of equal or greater quality than the food of "traditional" fast-food restaurants. (This number jumps to 71 percent when eliminating those consumers who say they never eat at either type of business.)
Now, let’s look deeper into the demographics of the different respondent groups:
- Gender: Respondents who say c-store freshly prepared food is of higher quality are more likely to be men (56 percent male vs. 44 percent female). Women are more likely to say they never eat at either business (57 percent to 43 percent).
- Age: Younger respondents in general are more likely to say c-store freshly prepared food is of higher quality. (Remember, many of these are the post-"Reality Bites" generations.) As people get older, they are more likely to see c-store quality as equal to that of fast food. Those over the age of 65 are most likely to say they never eat at either.
- Income: When looking at income, there is little difference except that those who say c-store freshly prepared food is of higher quality are more likely to make less than $25,000 per year. This could reflect an age proxy, as younger respondents generally make less in annual income.
- Residential location: Those who believe c-store freshly prepared food is of higher quality than fast food are about twice as likely to live in an urban area vs. a rural one. Those who believe fast-food quality is higher are more likely to live in the suburbs.
- Occupation: Those who favor the quality of convenience store food over fast food are more likely to be skilled craft workers and laborers, while fast-food fans are more likely to work as managerial professionals, salespeople and homemakers.
Going even deeper than demographics, CivicScience also collects a wide variety of attitudinal and behavioral data to paint a higher-definition picture of consumer segments. We looked at what percentage of each “food quality opinion” segment had the following attributes based on their answers to other CivicScience polling questions they’ve encountered.
A higher percentage of respondents who believe a c-store’s freshly prepared food is of higher quality consider themselves very active on Facebook and Twitter when compared to the percentage of fast-food fans who say the same.
A higher percentage of fast-food fans consider themselves tightwads in their spending patterns and place a higher value on price over brand when shopping in general. Meanwhile, a higher percentage of convenience food fans value price by a lot when it comes to food shopping and are less brand loyal.
Also, a higher percentage of fast-food fans than c-store food fans see themselves as being healthier, despite 31 percent of them eating at quick-service restaurants fairly often.
We also asked U.S. adults to weigh in on a common scenario: When on the road and you need food and gas, what do you most often do? We asked this question to see if the increase in favorable sentiment about convenience store food quality is resulting in correlating behaviors.
Among the 3,500-plus consumers who responded, they are fairly split when it comes to on-the-road behavior to fuel both their vehicles and bodies. Thirty-eight percent say they make one stop at a convenience store to fill both needs, while the remaining 68 percent make multiple stops to get food elsewhere.
Those who believe c-store prepared food is of higher quality are slightly more likely to just make one stop when on the road for food and gas (43 percent), rather than make multiple stops for either fast food or a sit-down meal (39 percent and 18 percent, respectively).
Among the fast-food quality fans, 35 percent make one stop, 37 percent make one stop for fuel and one stop for fast food, and 28 percent make one stop for fuel and one stop for a sit-down meal.
Even though sentiment about convenience store made-to-order food quality is fairly strong, it does not yet seem to be enough to persuade most of those on the road to make just one pit stop.
CivicScience collects real-time consumer research data via polling applications that run on hundreds of U.S. publisher websites, cycling through thousands of active questions on any given day. Respondents answer via opt-in just for fun and are kept anonymous, allowing for greatly reduced bias and higher levels of engagement. Using technology, CivicScience builds deep psychographic profiles of these anonymous respondents over time, providing valuable consumer sentiment data to decisionmakers.
The CivicScience methodology has been scientifically validated by a team of academic leaders and by independent consulting firms. Responses may be weighted for U.S. Census representativeness for gender and age. For this study, responses to the two questions noted were collected Aug. 14-27. No convenience store or quick-service restaurant brands participated in this study in any way.