The history of convenience stores in the United States can be traced back to 1927, when an employee of the Southland Ice Company in Dallas, Texas, realized that people needed a place where they could buy basic necessities after other stores had closed. The employee decided to sell items such as milk, bread, eggs and cheese from within his ice shop and stay open later into the evening, creating America’s first convenience store. The Southland Ice Company eventually changed its name to 7-Eleven, the nation’s largest operator of convenience stores. By the 1950s, as more people moved from cities to the suburbs and spent more time in their automobiles, the convenience store and gas station combination became popular.
Today, convenience stores are one of the few brick and mortar retail formats that are immune from the adverse effects of Amazon and other e-commerce giants. According to the 2020 National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS)/Nielsen Convenience Industry Store Count, there are about 153,000 convenience stores in the United States, and about 80% of those stores sell gasoline and other motor fuels. An estimated 165 million customers daily, and 58 billion customers annually, shop at convenience stores to grab a quick snack and beverage or a fresh prepared meal, fill up their tank or conduct a financial transaction. In many ways, the convenience store has become the modern day general store.
Convenience stores also play a significant role in the U.S. economy. An NACS publication entitled Convenience Stores and Communities (April 2019), reports that convenience stores now sell about 80% of the fuel purchased in the United States, and 2018 saw the 16th straight year of record in-store sales. The average convenience store collects $1.28 million in taxes for local, state and federal governments and, due to their relatively small building footprint, collect an amount of taxes per square foot that rivals even the most successful big-box stores. In 2017, U.S. convenience stores had sales of $654 billion, representing 3.1% of the $20.5 trillion U.S. gross domestic product. Convenience stores also provided a total of 2.36 million jobs across the country.
Despite their growing popularity and importance to the economy, many Long Island communities subject convenience stores to restrictive and burdensome zoning regulations that limit their size and frustrate their very purpose – to provide convenience to their customers. The concept of convenience has evolved from the purchase of “Cokes and smokes” while refueling to grabbing a made-to-order sandwich, hot bowl of soup, or a cup of gourmet coffee. Many newer and larger stores often offer selections of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, premade salads and even cold-pressed juices and smoothies. These offerings are mostly directed toward health-conscious millennials, who are more likely to buy prepared foods on the go at a convenience store than any other age group. Not surprisingly, the format of modern convenience stores has increased significantly from the typical 1,200 square foot building of the 1950s and 1960s, with many chains now constructing buildings of 5,000 square feet or more.
Some municipalities, such as the Town of Islip, recognize the evolution of convenience stores and do not limit their size. Other municipalities, however, have local codes that regulate the size of convenience stores as they existed 60 years ago. Still others have adopted new zoning regulations that allow for larger convenience stores, yet not large enough to serve the wants and needs of today’s convenience store customer. For instance, the Town of Southold’s regulations limit the size of a convenience store associated with a gas station to 1,200 square feet. In the Town of Brookhaven, the building area for a convenience store accessory to a gas station is limited to 1,500 square feet. Brookhaven’s code allows an increase in building size with the redemption of a Pine Barrens Credit, but only to a maximum of 3,000 square feet. In 2019, the Town of Smithtown amended its zoning regulations to increase the maximum allowable size of a convenience store associated with a gas station from 350 square feet to 1,250 square feet. While new regulations that permit larger stores are definitely a step in the right direction, they are still too restrictive for many modern, full-service convenience store chains.
Long Island lags behind others areas of the country with respect to large format convenience stores and it’s time for local governments to “wake up and smell the gourmet coffee” that other regions are enjoying at their local convenience stores. Long Islanders who have traveled to other states and visited Wawa, Sheetz, Rutter’s or Circle K stores, or have been to one of the new QuickChek stores in Lake Grove, Commack or Copiague, know just how convenient it is to refuel their automobiles and refuel their bodies with a freshly prepared meal or snack all in one stop. Local elected officials and planners should recognize that, in the appropriate location, a modern, full-service convenience store can be an economic boon to their community, while providing their constituents and the motoring public with the convenience and product selection that they now desire.