By the 1990s, convenience stores and stand-alone gasoline stations were more of a single retail unit than two separate operations, with self-serve and pre-pay at the pump common consumer benefits. Meanwhile, the regulatory environment became even more heightened for retailers with compliance for underground storage tank regulations, set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Clean Air Act in 1988, taking place in 1998.
Hypermarkets selling fuel took the retail landscape by storm during the 1990s, creating an intense competitive climate for the small, local businesses. These large formats, notably Texas-based H-E-B and Costco, saw fuel as a traffic driver to boost sales inside the store, which often meant a packed shopping cart. That put enormous pressures on convenience stores, which had slim fuel margins but still needed profits from fuel sales to drive their businesses. NACS published "Motor Fuel Retailing at Hypermarkets: A Look at the New Competitors" to give retailers insights and ideas to compete in the changing marketplace.
The infiltration of the Internet into American culture and the workplace took off in the 1990s, with the introduction of the World Wide Web and Microsoft's release of Microsoft Office in 1990.
The promise of cellular phones was starting to become reality. Home phones were beginning to go cordless, and mobile phones were starting to find consumer applications, although they were close in size and weight to a brick, if not a cinderblock. Other technologies also were emerging, such as e-mail, instant messaging, e-commerce websites, MP3 players, digital cameras, CD burners, DVDs, flash card readers, pagers and satellite phones becoming mainstream throughout the decade. Video gaming also surged with the release of Sony's PlayStation.
Innovation Leads to Efficiencies
During the 1990s, many convenience retailers sought major changes to their operations, beginning with aesthetics. Store design shifted to accommodate a one-stop-shop concept and pull customers from the forecourt into the store, where retailers could realize stronger margins on merchandise such as coffee, tobacco, foodservice and packaged beverages. Retailers also responded to safety concerns by removing clutter from windows and doors and adding better lighting.
NACS continued to meet the growing need for industry knowledge by making the NACS Show an annual event in 1992. In 1994, NACS refocused its annual "Ideas Ideas" program at the Show into the "Ideas 2 Go" video program, featuring industry best practices and retail solutions from convenience store formats throughout North America.
Technology — a powerful area that demanded NACS leadership — led to an industry-wide technology standards project in 1995. This $2 million investment involved hundreds of suppliers, solution providers and retailers, which led to billions in savings. Industry standards had been born.
And as technology innovations surged, so did the need for retailers to boost their efficiencies at the store level. In 1995, the first NACStech event took place, giving retailers a forum to explore new technology-driven innovations and solutions.
But the 1990s weren't just about technology. The overall image of convenience stores was generally perceived as providing quick, time-saving locations for fuel and food, but public opinion surveys conducted by NACS revealed areas of convenience store strengths and challenges. In the first half of the decade, consumers rated the industry low for pricing of merchandise and customer service.
NACS also provided tools to help members improve their image by improving their performance. Its first CD-ROM training program, on robbery deterrence, was developed. "The Convenience Store Guide to POS Scanning" helped stores take advantage of the data mining possible with scanning. The first NACS Category Definitions and Numbering Guide was introduced.
The responsible sale of tobacco was another important issue. "Project Safeguard: A Get-Tough Initiative by Responsible Tobacco Retailers" provided signage and other materials to retailers. NACS also partnered with We Card to share best practices to prevent underage sales of tobacco.
By mid-decade, NACS released the 1995 Future Study, providing an outlook for a convenience store environment that would operate in tougher, more competitive marketplace where competing retail formats would adapt the unique characteristics of a convenience store, such as speed of service and 24/7 access.
Closing out 1999, then-NACS Chairman Dean Durling summarized that the industry was "in the right place at the right time," noting that "people want and need convenience stores."
The American public agreed. According to a December 1999 poll released by Yankelovich Partners Inc., the availability of 24-hour convenience stores was one of the highest-ranked items that Americans wanted to see continue into the next millennium.