Dallas-The largest convenience store operator in the United States is hoping new merchandise will bring in more women, who traditionally have been just 30 percent of its patrons. Males between 18 and 34 typically have formed the rest of 7-Eleven's-as well as the entire industry's-mainstay customer base.

"Convenience is more important to women," said Cheryl Martineau, 7-Eleven category manager. "Women are more willing to shop convenience stores now than they have been in the past."

Martineau said 7-Eleven plans to deepen its selection of female-oriented merchandise in the first quarter of 2001 by adding facial- and nail-care products. For now, it's rolling out CD-size compacts and mini compacts filled with Heart and Soul brand eye shadow or lip color, priced between $2.59 and $5.99; teen-oriented bracelets; toe rings and key chains, costing between $1.99 and $7.99; and Heaven Sent pantyhose, priced from $2.99 to $4.69.

7-Eleven's concern about new customers appears to be shared by the entire U.S. convenience store industry, which had 1999 revenues of $256.6 billion, according to Franchise Finance Corporation America (FFCA), a Scottsdale, Arizona, firm that provides real estate financing for multiunit retail operators. According to a recently released FFCA report, convenience stores are searching for ways to attract a wider range of consumers amid fiercely intensifying competition. The report stated that among problems convenience stores face are major oil company consolidation, heightened competition from retailers such as supermarkets and mass merchandisers, shrinking gasoline margins, and reduced income from tobacco purchases.

The industry is especially dependent on and worried about tobacco sales, which have been under assault for a number of years, noted Claire Pamplin, editor-in-chief of Convenience Store News, a New York-based trade publication. In 1999, CSN estimated that tobacco accounted for 34.9 percent of convenience store sales, while health, beauty and cosmetic merchandise provided just 1.31 percent of revenues.

"Even a percentage point or two growth in a product category reduces the dependency on tobacco," Pamplin said. She said this is one compelling reason for store operators to expand their offerings in high-margin categories such as health-beauty-cosmetics or fresh food.

"7-Eleven has always been known for dashboard dining," said company spokeswoman Dana Manley. She added that in the next two months, new foods that appeal especially to women, such as fresh-cut produce and salads, will start appearing in the company's stores. -Reuters