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Consumers as a whole are paying more attention to where their food comes from and how it was made. In response, many convenience stores are starting to follow the decisions of some quick-service and fast-casual restaurant chains that are revamping their food and beverage selection, in hopes of appealing to consumers with more healthy or “clean” eating habits.
According to research done by NACS in the second quarter of 2015, convenience stores are adding more fresh and healthy items to their shelves; 77 percent of convenience stores say they are currently selling fresh fruits or vegetables. Nuts, health bars, yogurt and string cheese are some of the other options that at least 80 percent of c-stores carry.
When it comes to making additional changes, however, there is no need to rush to keep up with the latest eating trends. Recent research from CivicScience found that c-store customers are more hesitant to adopt clean eating habits.
So where do the largest opportunities lie and which eating trends are c-store customers on board with?
By using consumer polling research data from CivicScience, we polled more than 5,000 U.S. adult consumers in July and identified the weekly and monthly c-store customers’ eating and health habits.
Among U.S. adults, 23 percent make food or beverage purchases at a convenience store a few times a week or once a week. This is the most loyal customer group, so let’s refer to them as “weekly customers.” Fourteen percent of adults make purchases a few times per month (“monthly customers”), while 15 percent make a purchase several times a year and 49 percent rarely or never buy food or beverages at convenience stores.
Let’s take a closer look at how the more loyal weekly customers and monthly customers compare to the average U.S. adult population — particularly around this hot topic of clean eating.
When compared to the general U.S. adult population, weekly customers are more likely to be 18- to 29-year-old males, who have a similar income as the general population.
They are less likely to buy organic food. And although they are more likely to be at least somewhat informed on the topic of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), they are less likely to say GMOs affect their grocery purchases.
The majority of their grocery budget is spent on packaged or frozen foods. Weekly c-store food or beverage customers are more likely than average to spend less than a quarter of their grocery budget on fresh items, and they are 43 percent more likely to prepare a frozen entrée at least three times a week. So, it seems that c-stores may want to experiment with selling frozen meals, since so many of their loyal weekly customers eat them frequently.
When weekly customers reach for a snack throughout the day, it’s more likely to be something salty or sweet, not healthy. Purchasing a bag of chips is probably a lot more common among this group than purchasing a bag of nuts.
These c-store loyalists are 33 percent more likely than other U.S. adults to say they are not eating healthier because they would have to cut back on things they like. Their lower interest in healthy eating can also be seen in their lack of food labeling mindfulness: they are 22 percent less likely to read nutritional information before making their food purchases. Also, packaging claims such as organic or non-GMO are not important to these consumers, even though they are GMO-aware.
So, in short, these loyal customers don’t eat as healthy as the average U.S. adult. C-stores adding healthier foods to their inventory will likely have little influence on the weekly customers and their purchases.
Now, let’s turn to the average monthly customer group and see if anything might indicate they can be converted to more frequent c-store shoppers.
The gender breakdown of monthly customers is pretty evenly split at 51 percent male and 49 percent female. They are 37 percent more likely than the general population to fall into the millennial age group, and their annual household income aligns very closely with the average adult population.
For the most part, their eating habits seem to fall somewhere in the middle of the weekly customers and the general population’s habits. Monthly c-store customers less frequently eat out or get takeout food. They are 28 percent more likely than the general population to spend at least half of their grocery budget on highly perishable foods such as fruits, vegetables and dairy.
Compared to the general population, they are more likely to think preservatives/chemicals and GMOs are most harmful to their nutritional health, so playing up products that are free of those ingredients may also be helpful to increase the purchase frequency of this group.
Although 30 percent of monthly customers believe they do eat healthy, those who say they don’t eat healthier are more likely to attribute the reason to too much work and not having enough time.
We can see this group makes more meals at home and is more willing to eat healthier; however, they are short on time. This may align well with the preferences of the weekly consumer too: fast-to-prepare meals of convenience with some health-oriented attributes would be the type of “clean foods” c-stores might want to pursue.
The majority of convenience stores now carry fresh fruits and vegetables and better-for-you snacks, but what food and beverage offering changes need to be made next?
Before jumping on the clean eating bandwagon and investing in organic and gluten-free foods and beverages, consumer research can help to better understand the current tastes and shopping preferences of your customers.
CivicScience collects real-time consumer research data via polling applications that run on hundreds of U.S. publisher websites, cycling through thousands of active questions on any given day. Respondents for this report were weighted for U.S. Census representativeness for gender and age, 18 years and older, and data was collected from non-incented opt-in respondents answering poll sessions July 7-16.
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.