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Can Tacos and Draft Beer Save the Corner Store?

An influencer-flooded launch for 7-Eleven's lab store in Kessler Park provides a glimpse of the company's future.

I recently found myself inside a gas station swarmed with social media influencers. These things don’t usually go together. Influencers need good photos for their feeds. You might spot them inside your nearest foodie joint, pointing an iPhone at oysters while a friend manipulates a lamp. Or at an ice creamery with a neon light that says, “It’s not gonna lick itself.” They don’t congregate at gas stations. There’s nothing sexy about gasoline.

Yet here they were, a pack of at least a dozen, at the launch of 7-Eleven’s new lab store in Kessler Park. The Irving-based retailer has decided to test a few things out. There’s a Laredo Taco inside, for instance, there’s beer on draft, and there’s a small patio outside. There’s an in-house bakery operating throughout the day, and there’s a little cellar for craft beer and wine. You can get nitro cold brew or kombucha on tap. You can ladle your own bowl of hot soup. You can make purchases on your phone and walk out without having to talk to anybody. You can even get an organic Slurpee. The plan is to continue experimenting with these things, popping them in and out, seeing what works.

With our digital world finding new ways to shop for everyday items, and with cigarette sales no longer the stalwart they once were, the convenience store industry has found itself in transition. The fragmented market has begun to consolidate. Last year, 7-Eleven acquired 1,030 locations and the Laredo Taco brand from Sunoco in a $3.3 billion deal. That gives it about 9,500 stores across the country, good for just 8 percent of the market. But alongside merger activity, C-stores are under pressure to find new avenues to build revenue. 7-Eleven now has a delivery service. But as its new lab store indicates, the company’s long-term vision includes expanding offerings to appeal to new customers.

At the launch event, after 7-Eleven Chief Operating Officer Chris Tanco finished addressing the room, I talked with him and Senior Director of Store Evolution Molly Long. Long is the project’s catalyst. A while back, she went to Tanco and CEO Joseph DePinto with an appeal about the future of the company. “We knew a lot about who our core customer today is,” she says. “We hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at who our potential customers could be.”

They decided to go after young urbanites, moms with young kids, and people whose fandom might boost their credibility. “We said if we could design a store that could do enough to start to attract those people, they could start thinking about 7-Eleven in a different way,” Long says. Research showed young professionals prioritize things like authenticity, freshness, and better drinks.

It’s too early to tell whether these people will buy into authenticity at a place with such a deep-rooted legacy. It should be noted that influencers are often compensated or courted with giveaways for these appearances. But the lab store has been packed since it opened. And so far, cigarette sales make up just 10 percent of the lab store’s revenue mix. It’s about double that in other 7-Eleven stores.

“Eventually, that business is going to deteriorate,” Tanco says. “We need something substantive to replace those sales—and it’s in fresh food. This is a great representation of what the future could be.”

The idea is to find what works and then roll it out to other 7-Eleven locations as the company builds or renovates. “If all we build is one store, I would consider it a failure,” says Long. By that measure, she’s probably fine. After initial success in Kessler Park, the company is already working to open five more lab stores this year, with locations identified in Prosper, Washington D.C., and Manhattan. “My goal is to change the brand of 7-Eleven,” Long says.

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