Cumberland Farms wants customers to step away from their cars.
That’s the only way today’s retailers that sell fuel can compete — by attracting customers into bigger convenience stores to buy food and other items that have higher profit margins than gas, experts say.
On Feb. 28 Cumberland Farms will open a 4,378-square-foot store in Lake Ronkonkoma with a fast-casual restaurant, three self-service food-ordering kiosks and 12 fueling stations.
“I think it was just trying to take it to the next level . . . we wanted to be known as a convenience store that sells gas rather than a gas station that sells food inside,” said Bryan Pierce, spokesman for the Westborough, Massachusetts-based chain of 560 gas stations.
Next month QuickChek, a Whitehouse, New Jersey-based chain of 154 convenience stores, will open its fifth store in a new prototype, “the fresh convenience market,” in Copiague — its first location on Long Island with the new concept.
The Copiague store will be 6,929 square feet and have 16 fueling stations.
While Cumberland Farms, QuickChek and some other gas retailers are building bigger stores, that trend has not caught on on Long Island as much as it has in other places.
“There are big costs to be involved in Long Island for gasoline. And you do have a lot of communities that will fight it,” said Kevin Beyer of the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association.
Fuel sellers are facing increased challenges, including more fuel-efficient vehicles requiring less gas, and rising credit and debit card swipe fees, according to IBISWorld Inc., a market research firm.
So gas station operators are focusing more on drawing customers inside stores with bigger buildings that offer a diverse array of items, such as custom-order hot food, groceries and smoothie bars, said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores.
Nationwide, the average size of a convenience store was about 2,400 square feet in the 1980s but it’s 3,000 square feet now, and it’s not uncommon to see 5,000 square feet, he said.
But expensive investments are out of reach for most “mom and pop” operations, so they’re closing, leaving larger chains to dominate the market.
The number of gas stations on Long Island fell by 170, or 15.3 percent, to 940 locations between 2007 and 2016, according to the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets.
Difficult zoning and expensive real estate present unique challenges, especially on Long Island, said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at the Oil Price Information Service in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Cumberland Farms, which received a special-use permit and variances from Smithtown’s board to build the Lake Ronkonkoma store, was met with an unusually high amount of opposition — even after board approval — from some residents voicing concerns about the impact on ground water and traffic, Smithtown planning director David Flynn said.
Resident opposition also is not unfamiliar to QuickChek, which opened a 5,868-square-foot store with 12 fueling positions in Lake Grove in 2014 and a 6,000-square-foot store with 16 fueling positions in Bethpage in May 2017.
“Most neighborhoods are concerned with change and people do resist change, so there is some opposition,” said QuickChek CEO Dean Durling.
QuickChek’s stores already offer made-to-order foods, but the new concept stores will have more fresh foods, a more open layout, and laptop and cellphone charging stations.
The chain plans to open one or two stores on Long Island annually, Durling said.
“Long Island has a lot of people density. It has a lot of working population density . . . It has a lot of traffic,” he said.
Cumberland Farms entered the Long Island market in 2015 with stores in Commack and Oceanside.
Called its “next generation” prototype, the Cumberland Farms’ store in Lake Ronkonkoma will be slightly bigger than its average location and will focus heavily on food service, Pierce said.
Fifteen of its locations are the next-generation concept, but the Lake Ronkonkoma store will be the first on Long Island.