NATIONAL REPORT — It’s no secret that convenience stores have received a bad junk food wrap. Even First Lady Michelle Obama criticized the channel for not having anything healthy to offer. But that generalization is slowly changing as the health and wellness push moves further into the mainstream — impacting consumers all the way to the convenience retail sector.
“More consumers than ever before tell us that eating healthy and paying attention to nutrition is important,” said Darren Tristano, vice president of research at consulting firm Technomic Inc., which unveiled a new “Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report” in January. This report showed that consumers’ perception of healthy food is changing as they become more health-conscious. The study also found that consumers strongly associate with contemporary definitions of health, but balance better-for-you food choices with occasional indulgences.
Tristano explained that more consumers are gravitating toward “health halo” claims, such as local, natural, organic, whole wheat and free range. For that reason, he advises retailers to “leverage the growing interest in the health halo by developing the kinds of menu offerings that can underscore health without detracting from taste perception.”
Recent research from Mintel also demonstrates the shift toward healthier eating. According to the market researcher, just over two-thirds of Americans are opting for healthier fare.
“Consumers are more aware than ever of their own nutritional deficits and what poor eating habits can do in terms of their long-term health,” said John Frank, Mintel’s category manager for CPG food and drink reports. “As a result, today’s consumers are seeking out healthy food with greater urgency. However, skeptical or confused consumers aren’t likely to pay a premium for healthier food.”
Smart convenience store retailers are monitoring these and other consumer health trends, with some taking a more proactive role and experimenting in-store where it makes sense. Among those making headlines recently:
- 7-Eleven Inc. introduced a line of fresh foods and downsized some of its fare by creating portion-sized items. The goal is to have 20 percent of sales come from fresh foods in its U.S. and Canada stores, up from about 10 percent currently, according to a December New York Times report.
“We’re aspiring to be more of a food and beverage company, and that aligns with what the consumer now wants, which is more tasty, healthy, fresh food choices,” stated 7-Eleven President and CEO Joe DePinto. The c-store giant has reportedly put together a team of culinary and food science experts to study industry trends and develop new products.
- More than a dozen convenience stores joined in a Kansas county’s efforts to reduce the community’s salt intake. Hy-Vee Convenience Store, Gas & Shop Convenience Store, Larry’s Shortstop and 10 local Kwik Shops in Shawnee County, Kan., agreed to display a standalone rack of healthy, low-sodium items (chosen and customized by a dietician) in a prominent spot in their stores. This health initiative was spearheaded by the commissioners in Shawnee County, which provided the racks, promotional signage, technical assistance and advertising.
- C-store retailers in Brattleboro, Vt., joined the Healthy Retailers program, sponsored by the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition in collaboration with the Vermont Department of Health. In addition to discouraging tobacco and alcohol use among youth, the program resulted in vegetables, new fruit varieties, and ground beef and pork products from local farms being available for purchase at select convenience stores in the area.
Sonja Hubbard, former NACS chairwoman and CEO of Texarkana, Texas-based E-Z Mart Stores Inc., is one convenience industry leader who has been vocal about her belief that the opportunity exists to make c-stores a more nutritious place for consumers to shop.
In 2010, Hubbard told Convenience Store News she was initially offended by the First Lady’s remarks about the lack of healthy food in c-stores, but then felt empowered to make some changes at her own chain. Now, two years later, she shared with CSNews that she thinks “c-stores are improving on the way we are promoting existing health and nutrition options, plus we are continually adding more items and trying to grow sales in the category.”
Minute Market in Oregon is another c-store operator adding and testing better-for-you items like string cheese, low-sodium sunflower seeds, fresh fruit and “healthier” drinks for kids. “As the industry changes, we are getting more options to choose from and bring in as our main distributor picks up these healthier products,” said Phyllis Simpler, Minute Market’s operations manager. “Over the last year, especially, a lot more products have been made available to us.”