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    Want to Know the Latest Food Trends? Visit a C-store

    New product innovation is showing up all over the place.

    By Susan Durtschi, Past Times Marketing

    NATIONAL REPORT — It is truly an exciting time to talk about food and beverage trends in the convenience channel. Health and wellness has gone mainstream. All the global food trends have filtered down to the mass market. Even green tea has been bottled into ready-to-drink form.

    Just a few years ago, the very idea of convenience stores becoming large sellers of natural food, beverages and snacks seemed absurd. Now, we are living in that reality. Consumers are much more concerned with what they perceive as healthy options, and the trends we follow support this.

    Consumer demand for convenience and immediacy will continue to deepen this year, and convenience stores seem poised to deliver elevated instant gratification. Along these lines, we are seeing a lot of success stories with new products in the channel.

    Looking for the latest product innovation? Just stop in at your local chain of convenience stores. Business has never been healthier, with new products showing up all over the place. Product launches have accelerated in the last year and new product development is robust.

    Just go into a Wawa or 7-Eleven or Casey’s store and observe the latest food trends. 

    With this month’s launch of Convenience Store News’ 20th annual Best New Products Awards contest, I thought I’d highlight a few of the product trends I’ve seen as I tour around the country.

    Foodservice: Fresh & Local Fare

    Foodservice in c-stores continues to grow at record speed and give quick-service and fast-casual restaurants a run for their money. I see “fresh” and “local” as keywords in new packaging and products.

    Sandwiches are anything but boring now. Whether the sandwiches are being made-to-order or grab-and-go, both feature unexpected flavor combinations and non-traditional ingredients. Special toppings such as pesto and aioli have been a nice addition to this traditional category.

    C-stores are also tweaking their breakfast sandwiches and serving them all day long, something quick-service restaurants have only recently figured out (i.e., McDonald’s). Another trend is the under-400 calorie option, which seems to have become the magic calorie number for consumers.

    America’s favorite protein is chicken. Considered healthier than beef, it continues to be a key player with customizable portions and mix-and-match options. New flavors from tangy to hot pack a punch.

    Roller grills have upped their game with easy, new grab-and-go offerings. The versatility of the roller grill from hot dogs to smoky sausages, and the impulse nature of the purchase, make it perfect for a twofer promotion or a roller grill and soda combo deal. Visual appeal and language such as “all beef” or “authentic Mexican” go a long way in this foodservice segment.

    Pizza is getting creative with more assertive flavor options such as chicken teriyaki or Tex-Mex toppings. Taste and pricing is key to this category. Another thing to think about is that Hispanics – the fastest-growing demographic group – love pizza. Value pairings with fountain soda or flavored waters continue to drive this category. Look for whole-wheat crust as a trend, too.

    Beverages: A Lot of Bubbly

    Innovative concepts, fresh ideas and proven strategies keep the beverage categories exciting in convenience stores. Case in point: all-day coffee programs continue to be enticing with limited-time offers. Seasonal flavors such as pumpkin or eggnog spice up the category. Pairing coffee with breakfast sandwiches or bakery items remains a winning combination.

    Ready-to-drink teas and juices are perceived by today’s consumers as healthier for you and have been taking some business from the sparkling water and carbonated soft drink segments. Packaging and unusual natural ingredients are a millennials’ dream.

    Beer has been made more exciting with all the craft beers that add variety – and more importantly, margin – to the mix. Dark beers and ciders are on-trend, as well as hard sodas (think ginger ale, root beer, orange soda, etc.).

    Public health concerns around drinking water have been all over the news. Bottled water and sports drinks have seen an uptick based on this scare. Another trend is customers picking out bubbly, effervescent water instead of carbonated soft drinks.

    Within the carbonated soft drink category, there is always going to be that great-value-for-the-size factor. In addition, lightly sweetened craft sodas are getting some play in the cold vault. There is seemingly no end to new artisanal beverages coming to market.

    Energy drinks continue to be an excellent margin driver, though there is little price sensitivity with this category. Dairy products, including milk and yogurt-based beverages, are also doing well. I see a lot of drinkable yogurts going out the door in my trips. Low-calorie milk, almond milk and soy milk are showing up in some convenience stores as well.

    Snacking: Feeding the Grazers

    Snacking remains a popular and growing trend in America. There are healthier versions of all types of snacks. Competition for selling space is fierce. People are grazing all day long.

    Chocolate remains the No. 1 comfort food in America and there are exciting new flavor pairings such as fig, raspberry and turmeric. Small portions are a big trend. Chocolate “bites” sound healthier and are prevalent in the mix. Dark chocolate is being emphasized as a high antioxidant. Also, king-size bar combos continue their popularity as a value item.

    Nuts and seeds have been trending with their high protein content and better-for-you mantra. Whether in single-serve or take-home bags, the category is hot. Peanuts remain No. 1, but almonds and sunflower seeds have been doing very well. Unsalted, buffalo, chili-lime and spicy garlic are trending flavors. Another hot product is yogurt-covered nuts and seeds, which doubles the protein of the snack.

    Chips and pretzels have been facing some competition from low-calorie, ready-to-eat popcorn as a healthier option, but the segments remain strong with new flavors and shapes. “Light” and “Baked” and calorie-controlled portions are trending. Cheese flavors and hot spicy flavors lead the way. Gluten-free has also made its way into the convenience store snack aisles.

    Customers looking to eat fewer carbohydrates are going for meat snacks. New exciting flavors, USA made, and packaging innovation are important to this protein-rich segment.

    America’s shift toward healthy eating shows up in the alternative snacks category with such products as high-protein energy bars, breakfast meal replacement bars or granola snack bars. All-natural ingredients and cool packaging and products that used to be seen only in high-end grocery and natural markets are showing up in c-stores. Whole nuts, fruits and seeds are all common in the portable bar.

    Non-chocolate candy trends show that small bites and mini portions are hitting the sweet spot with the convenience store customer. Removing artificial flavors has been another trend and fruit flavors are important to the healthy aspect of candy. Millennials love non-chocolate candy. Capturing the seasonal customer has been a big trend as well in non-chocolate. Presenting an over-the-top assortment and promotions works well at Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas.

    This is just a small recap of what is trending for this year and into 2017. 

    Do you have a new product that you think could be considered award-winning? The Convenience Store News 2016 Best New Products Awards is now open for submissions. Click here to enter. 

    By Susan Durtschi, Past Times Marketing
    • About Susan Durtschi Susan Durtschi is president and CEO of Past Times Marketing, a consumer research firm. Convenience Store News partners annually with Past Times Marketing to conduct its Category Captains and Best New Products Awards competitions. For more information, go to www.pasttimesmarketing.com.

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