While inflation could impact seasonal general merchandise sales this summer, savvy c-store operators are effectively merchandising and promoting these items to boost sales.
Overall U.S. and c-store inflation trends in the first half of this year could continue throughout the summer. While c-store sales rose 5.5% for the 13 weeks ending June 18 compared to the same quarter in 2022, units fell 0.5% due to an average 6.2% spike in prices for the quarter, according to Circana OmniMarket Total Store View.
Around 92% of Americans are cutting back on their spending in some way, according to a recent CNBC and Morning Consult survey. Walmart, Target, Home Depot and Best Buy all noted a consumer spending pullback in their first-quarter earning reports, CNBC added.
Additionally, 73% of consumers said in June that rising prices on essential goods and services is their primary economic concern, according to Numerator.
This is all impacting discretionary purchases across retail, and could cut into sales of summer merchandise. Sales of pool items and water/sand toys and accessories in all types of retailers plunged 16% in April and May versus the same months in 2022, according to Circana, and were down 4% for the year ending May 2023.
Dollar sales of beach towels across all retailers, meanwhile, declined by 23% and unit sales were down 22% in April and May compared to the same periods a year ago, although that time period is ahead of the typical summer selling season, according to a Circana spokesperson.
Conversely, dollar sales of insulated portable drink containers across all retail increased by 9% and unit sales climbed 2% in April and May compared to April and May 2022, per Circana.
“Summer seasonal merchandise has an interesting road ahead,” said Circana Retail Analyst Marshal Cohen. “As prices elevate yet again this year — at a slower rate than last year but still elevated — we will find consumers looking for deals, putting off purchases until needed, and spending holiday time closer to home. This bodes well for summer seasonal with more road trips, more time with friends, and more time at home.”
The summer sales
Despite inflationary worries among shoppers, c-stores shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to capitalize on summer sales with seasonal merchandise, Cohen said. “With more road trips and staycations, c-stores are getting more traffic and the opportunity to tap into the consumer’s more at/close-to-home-focused lifestyle.”
However, many c-stores do have dedicated summer seasonal offerings, while some — such as Buc-ees — that are known for general merchandise throughout the year can capitalize on incremental sales of items such as apparel, footwear, coolers and pool accessories during the summer months.
One c-store operator expecting a hike in summer general merchandise sales is Pontiac, Illinois-based Wally’s, which operates two massive travel centers at around 36,000 square feet each.
Founded in 2017, the company has quickly become known for its general merchandise — particularly its branded items. Its overall general merchandise sales are expected to be 20% to 30% higher than last year, and it has already realized a 20% hike in general merchandise sales in May and June versus the same two months in 2022, Director of Store Operations Tim Good said.
“We are anticipating that to continue through the summer season,” Good added.
The company prides itself on having a much broader selection of merchandise than a typical convenience retailer. “We have 10,000 square feet devoted to retail and our branded merchandise is what drives our retail business,” said Andy Strom, chief experience officer for Wally’s. “If it says Wally’s — whether it is a hat, apparel, or another item, it sells.”
Wally’s carries items that are typically considered seasonal summer merchandise — including branded towels, a variety of coolers, and camping utensils and cups — year-round.
“We have a huge selection of can coolers. They perform well for us year-round, but especially during the summer months,” Strom said.
Wally’s also starts carrying more pool floats, diving toys and other pool and camping items in April.
Branded Wally’s collapsible bins on top of the Rovr coolers are very popular, according to Julie Lazarus, senior manager of store operations. Floating key chains, bottle openers and lanyards for hanging koozies are also popular during the summer and year-round.
Drinkwear — including branded reusable solo cups and metal camping cups — also perform very well year-round, according to Strom.
How to merchandise summer seasonal offerings
Seasonal items have a higher level of impulse and “must be seen front and center to get full traction,” Cohen advised.
At the same time, retailers can effectively cross-merchandise seasonal items in other parts of the store, said Mike Sims, executive vice president of Far East Brokers and Consultants in Jacksonville, Florida, in a post on The Food Industry Association blog. “It’s been done for years with things like wine bags in the wine aisle but can be creatively executed in other ways, too, and for virtually all occasions and times of the year.”
Some of the summer items c-stores should be carrying, according to Cohen, are pool toys, lawn toys, beach accessories, picnic products, travel gear, portable drinkware, grab-and-go food products, and seasonal clothing and skincare.
Meanwhile, Ken Hagler, senior director of merchandising for at Nashville, Tennessee-based c-store operator Tri Star Energy/Twice Daily, suggests carrying primarily sunscreen and disposable coolers. Tri Star Energy’s stores carry Styrofoam coolers year-round but stock more during the summer to meet increased demand.
The vast majority of its stores’ summer sales stem from heightened beverage purchases, according to Hagler. As such, Twice Daily offers “hotter” promotional retails on “2-for” or “3-for” multipack Coke and Pepsi soft drinks, along with Gatorade, Powerade, Body Armor, Red Bull, and Monster.
“We also increase the size of our case water displays and offer case pricing on Gatorade with summer displays. This takes advantage of the heightened activities and additional hydration our customers are doing during the season,” Hagler said.
C-store operators can also gain a loyal customer following during the summer months by specializing in a particular type of seasonal product, such as kayaks or outdoor furniture, Sims noted.
Seasonal SKUs sport greater risk due to the perishable nature of timing to sell, Cohen acknowledged. “Seasonal products are not only heavily impulse driven but also impacted by weather,” he said. “But a new rule of thumb for retail these days is that you are better off selling out than selling off.”
Cohen added that “Big opportunities come with greater risk. But in the c-store environment, the risk — if done well — has great rewards. More sales, better imagery, and higher selling prices.”
Maintaining seasonal offerings requires a broader commitment by store leaders who can identify and train associates to manage these segments, according to Sims. “This is especially important given the timely nature and frequent turnover of seasonal assortments.”