Convenience stores happy to be holding their own

Kenlaw, whose Sugar Hill-based company, Premier Developments, operates Community Markets in three northeast Georgia communities, is in the business of building convenience stores on spec. But when he was unable to find a buyer for the stores after the bottom fell out of the economy in late 2008, he became the boss of the operation.

"People were only looking to pick up a store at a great bargain," he said.

Convenience stores have held their own through the ailing economy, although the total number of stores dropped nationally in 2008 and 2009, said Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, which holds its annual meeting at the Georgia World Congress Center this week.

He said convenience stores suffered when gas prices hit $4 a gallon a couple of years ago and consumers cut back on driving. After prices relaxed, many convenience store owners could not get the financing to continue operations.

"Staying the same is the new growth in light of the economy," Lenard said. "If you can hold you're own you're pretty happy right now."

Convenience stores that survive this downturn will have to strike the delicate balance of adding more food options without looking like supermarkets, he said. Customers like convenience store shopping to be quick and don't want to walk down multiple aisles.

"My hope is that our industry can transition to restaurants selling gas and not a gas station selling food," Lenard said.

Kenlaw said his sales generally have been average.  .He awaits the day the economy improves enough for him to sell his stores and get back to building commercial properties.

"We're going to wait till January and make a decision on what to do," he said about building more speculative convenience stores.

By the numbers

146,300: Number of convenience stores nationally in 2008

144,500: Number of convenience stores nationally in 2010

$511 billion: Convenience stores sales in 2009 (grocery stores had $556 billion that year)

1,100: the number of customers an average convenience store selling fuel sees per day

80 percent: the share convenience stores have of the gas market (the other 20 percent is split between big box retailers like Wal-Mart and full-service gas stations that have mechanics on duty)

Source: National Association of Convenience Stores

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