From gourmet lattes to hand-made hoagies to fat-free frozen yogurt, Pasco County’s newest convenience stores are pulling out all the stops to draw in customers who usually pay at the pump.
Pasco motorists were introduced last month to Wawa, the Pennsylvania-based gas retailer famous for its smoothies and sandwiches. But a familiar name also is undergoing a major expansion in the Tampa Bay market and a brand transformation.
Atlanta-based RaceTrac has opened two new stations in Pasco with 24 gas pumps and 6,000-square-foot convenience stores and has two more planned for this year. The latest player in the upscale convenience store industry offers an extensive array of “grab-and-go” sandwiches and salads, empanadas and fresh-baked cookies and muffins.
“It’s our new prototype store,” company spokeswoman Amanda Rodriguez said. “All our new stores are going to be 6,000 square feet. They have free Wi-Fi, and they’re well-lit and have nice brick exteriors.”
The number of hot and cold beverage choices is confounding. The store offers 10 flavors of brewed coffee, but it also has a dozen types of brewed ice tea, ranging from mango-peach green tea to hibiscus to pomegranate. There are a dozen flavors of frozen carbonated drinks and a dozen more frozen smoothie options.
But the piece de resistance is the self-serve frozen yogurt. Customers make their own sundaes and pay by the ounce, just like they do at the leading yogurt stores.
“We’re really proud of our new Swirl World frozen yogurt bar,” Rodriguez said, noting that each store carries 10 flavors — ranging from the standard chocolate and vanilla to Thin Mint and pistachio — with toppings bars that have 40 choices of fruits and candies.
“The convenience store has evolved,” said Ned Bowman, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association. “The fastest growth area of the convenience store industry is food service.”
Although it may seem a bit over the top, the new style convenience store is a direct response to economic realities and Americans’ changing shopping habits. Even though gas prices have been on the rise, gas station owners made less profit on fuel sales in 2012 than they did in 2011.
Reduced demand for cigarettes also has cut into their profits, according to a study by NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing. A typical convenience store experienced a 2 percent drop in cigarette sales in 2012, but the sale of cold dispensed drinks has grown by 50 percent in three years.
The stores are designed to appeal to specific customer bases: professionals, families with children, women and browsers.
Convenience stores aren’t the first retailers to expand the offering of healthy grab-and-go sandwiches, wraps and fruit salads for customers on their way to work or on their lunch break who are looking for an alternative to fast food. Walgreens has transformed five Tampa Bay stores, including the one on S.R. 54 in Land O’ Lakes, with expanded fresh grocery items — even sushi.
“The next step is the frozen yogurt bar and the coffee bar,” Bowman said. “It used to be just regular and decaf. Now you have bold and strong, and all types of flavors.”
The new RaceTrac model fits this mold. It even has tables in the store to resemble a yogurt shop. The target customers are women and families with children who are looking for an inexpensive treat. “It’s a trend,” Bowman said. “You have two people working and families always on the go. They’ve really grown into the neighborhood store.”
According to the NACS study, women want “a place that feels comfortable and safe with a professional staff that doesn’t infringe on their personal space.” Shoppers want to be able to look around the store and check their email without feeling rushed. “Don’t rush the shopper when they want to browse, but get them out fast when they’re ready to go,” the study advises.
RaceTrac expects to open stores in Hudson, on U.S. 19 and Ideal Road, and Wesley Chapel at the intersection of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and S.R. 54 this year. The company also built a gas-convenience store on S.R. 52 in 2011, but it was before the new prototype store was introduced, Rodriguez said.
Each new store employs 20 people, and RaceTrac has opened 80 in the past three years. The privately held company operates retail gasoline convenience stores in seven metro markets, including: Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Dallas, Miami, New Orleans, and Orlando. The company recently added new stores in Jacksonville as part of its Florida expansion.
Wawa also embarked on a major expansion into Central Florida, including five stores in the Tampa Bay area. Wawa will open 15 stores in Orlando in 2013 and 10 in the Tampa Bay market in 2013; 25 stores will open in 2014 and 25 in 2015. The company projects it will open 100 stores in the Orlando/Tampa markets within the next five years.
Thorntons, a Louisville, Ky.-based company with more than 160 locations, expanded to Florida with stores in Clearwater, Largo and Tampa. The company plans to open 15 to 20 Florida stores a year for the next few years. A company spokeswoman said there are no immediate plans to open a Thorntons in Pasco County, “however we are expanding the possibility of expanding there.”