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    The Better-for-You Balancing Act

    C-stores can attract health-conscious consumers without alienating indulgent shoppers.

    By Renee M. Covino, Convenience Store News

    Achieving a healthy balance is literally the right strategy for convenience stores looking to satisfy the more mainstream consumer shift toward healthier eating. Just as healthier fare and indulgent fare co-exist in the American diet, so too can they co-exist in c-store aisles. It’s all about mastering the better-for-you balancing act.

    According to a recent research report by Information Resources Inc. (IRI) entitled Convenience Stores: Keep the Core; Appeal to More, c-stores are straying from the one-size-fits-all store model. One clear sign of this is the convenience channel’s growing healthy merchandise disbursement — adding “good-for-you” products next to the candy bars, IRI revealed.

    C-store chains such as Nashville, Tenn.-based Tri-Star Energy’s Twice Daily (there are currently 17 of these rebranded stores out of the 71 c-stores in the chain) keep the balance in check with intermingled merchandise that doesn’t try to give any false impressions.

    “You can buy a double-bacon cheese breakfast biscuit right next to a Caesar salad in our stores,” Tom Woodard, director of communications for Tri-Star Energy, told Convenience Store News. “We’re never going to become a Whole Foods, the biggest, healthiest place to eat; that’s not what we’re trying to be at all. But we do want to be the freshest place to eat, and that means cold and crisp salads are offered along with hot and fresh biscuits and pastries.”

    For Twice Daily, healthy merchandise in moderation is what it’s all about. “We want to have indulgent offerings with healthier choices. We want to have a little bit of everything for all people,” Woodard added. “Today, the c-store customer is not a stereotype, the c-store customer looks like everyone and anyone. So, I don’t want to come across as ‘healthy granola,’ but fresh is very big here.”

    While forward-thinking c-store retailers aren’t trying to emulate the health food channel, they are succeeding in carrying some unexpected healthier items.

    7-Eleven Inc., for one, is absolutely on top of that. “People are snacking throughout the day and they’re looking for ways to improve what they eat without sacrificing taste,” stated Rebecca Frechette, senior vice president of merchandising for the Dallas-based chain. “Our selection includes our own 7-Select line of trail mixes and snacks alongside top-shelf and gourmet brands that you might not expect to find in a convenience store.”

    C-store operators looking to sprinkle in some better-for-you products that are already a hit in the convenience channel should consider these top-selling “healthy” items:

    Nuts and seeds: Recent market research from The NPD Group revealed that nuts rank among the top 10 snack-oriented convenience foods for U.S. consumers. Nuts are popular particularly as a morning snack, but are also often incorporated into meals at all times of the day. What’s more, 77 percent of households have nuts or seeds on hand, and 19 percent of individuals eat nuts at least once in a two-week period. This fall, 7-Eleven introduced a new selection of gourmet, organic and better-for-you snacks, including premium nut blends (along with dry roasted edamame, organic trail mix and veggie chips).

    Fruit: The No. 1 snack and dessert in the United States is fresh from nature — fruit. It also makes up 7 percent of end dishes consumed, according to NPD’s recent Eating Patterns in America report. “The movement toward more fruit over the last decade is, in my opinion, a movement toward the need for natural,” said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at NPD. Many c-stores are carrying whole fruits and those taking it a step further are becoming savvy purveyors of pre-cut fruit cups served in single packages with a fork.

    Gluten-free snacks: Mainstream consumer interest in gluten-free offerings continues to rise. According to the latest research from Mintel, sales in the gluten-free food and beverage market were estimated to reach $10.5 billion in 2013 and from 2011 to 2013, the market experienced 44-percent growth. For c-stores, snack packages that tout “gluten-free” are a no-brainer because they might attract a more health-conscious consumer, but do not typically dissuade a non-health-conscious consumer from a purchase.

     

    MERCHANDISING & MARKETING TACTICS

    Beyond a focus on key products, convenience stores looking to achieve a healthier balance can also try the following merchandising/marketing tactics.

    • Make at Least One Low-Calorie Menu Option Available — Pennsylvania-based Wawa Inc., with more than 600 c-stores, is noted for introducing new foodservice items and products that lead the industry in the way of “healthy.” Almost 10 years ago, the chain introduced a low-calorie egg white/turkey sausage/low-fat cheese breakfast sandwich and last year, Wawa unveiled the lowest calorie breakfast sandwich (240 calories) as a regular menu item.

    Also last year, Tedeschi Food Shops Inc., a nearly 200-store chain based in Rockland, Mass., introduced a new menu of healthier options, all containing 400 calories or less.

    • Have Women-Friendly Options — It’s no secret that the core c-store shopper is shifting as the demographics and appeal of convenience stores is shifting. According to The Hartman Group, women now shop at c-stores for immediate consumption occasions for nearly all the same reasons that men do. It was also revealed that women now visit c-stores as much as men and that, on average, women spend more time than men in c-stores. So, it only makes sense to appeal to females with “healthier” food options that emphasize quality and smaller portions.
    • Bring the Healthier Food to the People — Twice Daily has showcased some of its new fresher/healthier food offerings at events that it previously didn’t attend or wasn’t associated with. One of those recently was a fall festival at the Hermitage, the former plantation/estate of President Andrew Jackson. Twice Daily provided the food served at the donor dinner, including finger sandwiches, and veggie and fruit trays. Attendees were “wowed” by the food and surprised to learn it came from a c-store, according to Woodard.
    • Mix Up Meal Times — In its 10 Trends for 2014 report, Technomic Inc. highlighted the breakdown of traditional meal times as a trend to watch this year. The research and consulting firm pointed out that more restaurants are introducing innovative breakfast items that are available all day, while other restaurant operators are promoting late-night breakfast menus, sometimes in conjunction with 24-hour drive-thru service. C-stores can apply the same line of thinking by making their healthier breakfast, lunch or dinner items available whenever a customer fancies them and not just during the traditional dayparts.
    By Renee M. Covino, Convenience Store News
    • About Renee M. Covino Contributing Editor Renée M. Covino is a veteran researcher, editor and writer with more than 30 years of experience in the mass retail sector. Her articles and columns have appeared online and in print for dozens of industry trade magazines, newsletters, metro newspapers, Fortune 500 company reports and college textbooks. Covino is a self-named “store connoisseur” who not only writes about retail, but happily supports it.

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