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NATIONAL REPORT — While some stereotypes persist, consumers no longer view convenience stores only as a destination to purchase tasty but unhealthy snacks and drinks. Increasingly, offering healthy and better-for-you products is an avenue c-store retailers are exploring to stay competitive — but this relatively new shift brings stumbling blocks, as well as opportunities.
Americans want to improve the quality of their diets, but it's not as simple as cutting calories and trading chips and candy bars for cut veggies and fruit cups. The fact that there is no one-size-fits-all way of building a healthier product lineup is one of the first challenges c-store operators must face. Whether they operate in an urban, rural or suburban marketplace, all c-stores have customers with a wide variety of opinions on what it means to eat healthier.
"Healthy and better-for-you are very broad terms and mean something different to each of our guests," said Erica Flint, a registered dietitian who does food research and development for Kwik Trip Inc., the La Crosse, Wis.-based chain of 550-plus convenience stores. "As is the case with anything, different health trends pop up with guests looking for items that align with those ideals."
One constant, though, is that the majority of c-store customers are not in search of purely functional foods. Rather, they want snacks that are healthier, but that still fulfill their craving for something tasty. According to Greg O'Neal, vice president of marketing for snack company Thanasi Foods — which aims to make “simple, healthy snacks that taste anything but simple” — consumers in search of better-for-you items are most interested in the following set of attributes:
Real Food: "There is definitely a movement toward real, rather than artificial; foods with transparent ingredient labels," O'Neal said.
Protein: Demand for high-protein food is on the rise, with 50 percent of Americans actively looking for it in the foods they buy and consume.
Craft: The term doesn't just apply to products found in a beer cave. When it comes to snacks and other food, consumers are also looking for more craft and less mass-produced products. "What happened in craft beer is happening in snack food for sure," he said.
Snacking as Meal Replacement: The trend of snacks as a meal replacement instead of a meal supplement is on the rise. Large, full meals are being replaced by smaller portions to help consumers eat less and eat on the go. This ties in with the increased demand for protein, as meat-based proteins make a good meal replacement.
Low/No Sugar: More people are discovering how much sugar can hide in otherwise healthy snacks and cutting back on their sugar consumption.
While overall food and beverage sales remain healthy at convenience stores, the healthy snacks category is outpacing the total market in sales growth, and industry insiders say it’s because the category delivers on many of the most-valued attributes.
However, identifying the specific better-for-you products that are right for a particular store may take more time and effort than simply placing the best-known brands on the shelves and waiting for the profits to roll in. It might be a process that requires multiple attempts.
"If a particular item doesn't work, it doesn't mean your guests aren't looking for healthy offerings. It may just be the specific item that was chosen isn't what they are looking for," Flint said. "Communicate with your guests and solicit feedback. Even small incremental changes count."
It’s important to note that any new better-for-you products a retailer adds should always be convenient and affordable, meeting consumer expectations of what they will find at a convenience store. This doesn't mean prices have to be the lowest of the low, as consumers have demonstrated a willingness to pay more for premium products with high-quality ingredients.
Look in the May issue of Convenience Store News for more on building a healthier product lineup.