How C-Stores Can Recover From Lost Morning Trips

As a convenience store owner, you’re most likely aware the breakfast daypart has been struggling since COVID-19 emerged. 

But as people slowly return to work and school, we’re seeing a rebound in morning traffic. 

Case in point: NACS reported a 7% recovery in hot beverage transactions (down 35% in March-April). 

So, now is the time to get your store into position.

How can you do that? Well, we took a look at c-stores across the country to find out how they’re recovering from lost morning trips. 

And here are 10 strategies you can use right now. 

1. Alert consumers in the evening of specials they can redeem the next morning

Image credit: High’s

Getting people back to the store in the morning is going to require a change in behavior. 

But it’s not impossible. We can shape emerging habits with new offerings — and a recent McKinsey report agrees.

One way to do this is to send notifications in the evening about promotions that consumers can redeem the next morning. 

For example, "Stop in tomorrow morning for a free donut when you purchase a coffee." Sending the notification the night before allows consumers to add time to their schedules to stop by in the morning. 

And since morning commutes aren't as common with COVID, a promotion gives the consumer the incentive they need to make the trip in the morning. 

An example of this is the 7-Eleven promotion for free coffee. You can see in the SMS notification below that they’re letting customers know ahead of time about the deal. That way, the free coffee is on their mind when they decide what to do in the morning. 

Image credit: Tatango 

2. Run specials on items commonly purchased in the morning

Image credit: Wawa

Just like before the pandemic, promoting common breakfast items is an effective way to encourage morning trips. 

And popular items still include coffee, breakfast sandwiches, and muffins or pastries. So all you may need to do right now to recover morning trips is to run specials on these items.

Rutter’s, for example, is running a 2 for $5 special on breakfast sandwiches from September through December. They’re promoting the deal at the pump and through their loyalty app. 

Image credit: Rutters

Another good example is from RaceTrac. The Atlanta-based chain ran a promotion in August and September for any size coffee for $1 (hot or iced). And in October and November, they moved to $1 Coffee Mondays.

“This is a sizable discount on iced coffee specifically,” said Tiffany Plemmons, RaceTrac’s director of food and dispensed beverages. 

“We’ll also feature pumpkin spice creamer for the fall, as well as a Hershey S’mores cappuccino. Coffee is a staple … and we look forward to the aggressive promotion to drive breakfast and correlating category sales.”

High’s of Baltimore is also offering deals on breakfast items to attract customers. 

“We’ll be running a competitive coffee and breakfast sandwich combo to regain sales and drive traffic into our locations,” said Dallas Wells, VP of food Service at High’s. 

“We’ve also begun an overhaul of our reusable mug and beverage refill program. We plan to offer an aggressive refill mug price for one year, along with a competitor mug trade-in program.”

3. Use coupons to encourage morning trips

Image credit: Sheetz

With many stores banning paper coupons during COVID, digital coupons are filling the void.

In fact, digital coupon redemption increased 56% in March year over year.

Plus, digital coupons and promotions are proven to drive trips and increase basket size. So it’s a good strategy to use them to recover lost morning trips. 

One of the best ways to roll out a digital coupon promotion is by partnering with a mobile-offer technology provider (like Koupon!). 

Our team takes care of it all, from offer set up to post-campaign analysis, and everything in between. 

You’ll be able to attract incremental promotion dollars, funded entirely by leading CPG brands. And you can launch promotions across your own channels, drawing back in those existing loyal customers.

4. Don’t just tell, show customers how they’ll be safe if they visit your store

Image credit: GPS Retail

Consumers remain wary of returning to stores even as restrictions are lifted.

To help them feel comfortable coming inside, you need to show them that you’re taking their safety seriously.

This means having plastic shields at the checkout, sneeze guards around food items, disposable sleeves for tongs or ladles, and hand sanitizer stations throughout the store.

Plus, Tom Trkla (CEO of Yesway) recommends that fellow c-store operators have a visual presence when it comes to cleaning. 

He says that at Yesway stores, “the constant cleaning throughout the entire day is not just important for safety reasons, but also because doing it in clear view of customers helps them trust that the stores are taking the pandemic seriously.”

Kwik Trip’s updated food sanitation procedures are another good example of this. They now wipe down food-related equipment and replace high-touch items like tongs every 30 minutes. (Pre-pandemic, it was every four hours.)

“We have always had a robust food safety program since 2002 when we really got into food,” says Paul Servais, Kwik Trip’s Retail Food Service Director. “When COVID-19 came, it wasn’t that we had to change philosophy for cleaning, but that we had to tell the public about it - have transparency about all of it.”

5. If you haven’t already, start using mobile (contactless) payments in-store

Image credit: Apple

Why should c-stores go even deeper into mobile tech with contactless payment?

Because that’s how consumers want to pay right now. It’s viewed as the safest payment option and there’s been a huge leap in consumer adoption.

Case in point, Visa reports that tap and go payments rose 150% in March. And according to a Mastercard survey, 51% of consumers are using cash less often or not at all since the pandemic began.

Contactless payment options include familiar things like Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, and in-app payments. But there are other creative solutions popping up too.

Take Exxon-Mobil’s new voice-controlled system, for example. In a partnership with Amazon and Fiserv, the gas station rolled out “Alexa, pay for gas” at over 11,000 locations on September 1st.

Consumers with Alexa-enabled devices can pull up to the pump and say, "Alexa, pay for gas." Alexa confirms the station location and pump number, then activates the pump. The driver can then select the fuel grade and begin fueling, and Alexa automatically completes payment afterward.

Image credit: CS News

Another unique solution is Skip’s open platform Scan and Go app. 

It allows shoppers to scan products in the store and checkout on the app, without ever standing in line or dealing with a cashier. And it’s already being used by High's, SpeedyQ, Volta, and more.

“Skip already had a great product in the market when COVID hit, but now the demand for zero-touch checkout options in c-stores is surging,” said Dalton Wright, Partner at Kickstart Fund.

“Who wants to stand in line in a crowded store, waiting to have a cashier handle their consumables, to finally transact on a clunky, common payment terminal? 

“That was a bad experience well before the pandemic, and Skip will help make it a thing of the past.”


Image credit: Skip

6. Rearrange your store for additional shopper safety

Image credit: Vend

Rearranging your store for shopper safety has several benefits right now. 

First, it ensures compliance with social distancing and food safety requirements. 

Second, it helps shoppers get in and out quickly. 

And lastly, it makes people feel comfortable and therefore more likely to come back. 

Many large c-stores have successfully rearranged their stores during the pandemic. Common solutions include:

  • Moving self-serve stations like roller grills and bakery cases to the back. 
  • Placing arrows and signage on the floor to indicate traffic flow. 
  • Moving popular items to the front of the store.
  • Putting social distancing markers at the checkout area. 

Image credit: VendHQ 

To get the best results from rearranging, Jeremy Owens (CEO of Seriously Smoked) recommends mapping out a typical customer journey to serve as the basis for your plan. 

“When businesses have an established buying process schematic,” Owens says, “they can use it as a basis for the retail layout and design so that the plan perfectly complements the conceptualized buying process. 

“If businesses fail to do these vital steps before planning the retail space, it could potentially destroy the efficiency of the finished output, particularly if certain elements do not coincide with others.” 

7. Product pairing promotions

Image credit: 7-Eleven

Bundling products for promotions has always been an effective way to increase sales. And it still holds true during these tumultuous times. 

Here’s an expert tip: 

Look at your data to find the most commonly purchased items in the morning. For example, let's say consumers often purchase coffee with a red bull; run a promotion such as "Save $2 when you purchase a fountain coffee and a Red Bull."

A common theme in this category is pairing coffee with a breakfast sandwich or pastry. Check out these current offers from High’s, Yesway, and Rutters: 

Image credit: High’s

Image credit: Yesway 

Image credit: Rutters

8. Hire more workers (if need be)

Image credit: Thorntons

During the pandemic, c-stores have been providing a critical service. 

And many have hired a significant amount of new employees in order to continue operating. Hiring more workers can allow you to:

  • Keep up with the new cleaning requirements.
  • Keep up with customer demand, open new stores, and expand hours. 
  • Have enough staff to fill in when people get sick or need to quarantine. 

7-Eleven, for example, has hired 50,000 employees in the past 6 months.

"I am constantly inspired by our 7‑Eleven Heroes who have stepped up to serve communities as we continue to navigate through the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic," said Joe DePinto, president and CEO of 7-Eleven. 

"Hiring 20,000 more store employees allows us to continue to fulfill our mission to give customers what they want, when and where they want it, whether in stores or at home."

Image credit: 7-Eleven

Another example is Louisville, KY-based chain Thorntons who is hiring part-time temporary contingent workers at all of its locations.

These contingent workers are part-time, temporary team members who will clean, stock shelves and coolers, maintain store standards, assist with other non-register activities and help to create a safe, clean, and friendly environment.

9. Partner with other c-stores

Partnerships are incredibly valuable in the highly competitive c-store industry. And in these unusual times, it can be a smart move. But what can c-stores gain by partnering with each other? 

First, you can pool resources such as staff and critical supplies, allowing both partners to meet consumer demand and remain competitive. 

Second, you can come together for a good cause, generating positive publicity for everyone involved. A good example of this is the Sheetz and Wawa partnership to provide emergency food relief. 

"Now, more than ever, we must join together to help our neighbors and the communities we serve who are struggling amid the spread of the coronavirus," said Chris Gheysens, president and CEO of Wawa.

The highly competitive chains came together to donate a combined 1,000 lunches and $4,000 to both Helping Harvest Food Bank and Second Harvest Food Bank. 

And finally, c-stores can come together to try to influence consumer behavior. After all, the entire industry would benefit if consumers started buying breakfast again. 

10. Offer “non-coupon” shopper loyalty rewards

Loyalty programs are still a useful tool for influencing consumer behavior. And convenience and personalization are key factors in making your program effective.

In terms of convenience, consumers want an easy way to track and redeem rewards. 52% of c-store shoppers say they prefer using a mobile app for this. In 2016, only 20% preferred mobile apps for reward redemption, but that number hit 44% in 2019 and continues to climb.

And mobile apps can be used for more than just tracking rewards. Take 7-Eleven’s Scan and Pay feature, for example. 

Loyalty members can now scan their own items in the store and pay through the app (similar to Skip's Scan and Go app that we mentioned earlier). Clearly, this is a valuable benefit during the pandemic and encourages in-store shopping.

As for personalization, this is the key to getting your loyalty rewards in line with changing consumer preferences. 

While this may seem obvious, Bond’s 2019 Loyalty Report actually found that a striking gap exists between retailer intent and actions. Only two in 10 rewards members were satisfied with the personalization in their loyalty program. In other words, brands aren’t using data effectively (if at all). 

This is another area where Koupon can help. Our insights and analytics program is powered by nearly 5 billion consumer transactions (and growing). Use this data to figure out what your shoppers want and how to reward desired behaviors. 


To recover from lost morning trips, there are several strategies that are working nationwide for c-stores. Let’s recap: 

  1. Alert customers in the evening about specials in the morning
  2. Run specials on items commonly purchased in the morning
  3. Show customers how they’ll be safe in your store
  4. Start accepting contactless mobile payments
  5. Rearrange your store for shopper safety
  6. Run product pairing promotions
  7. Hire more workers
  8. Partner with other c-stores
  9. Use digital coupons to encourage morning trips
  10. Offer non-coupon loyalty rewards

By implementing these strategies, your store will be well-positioned when consumer routines return to pre-pandemic patterns.