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    To Offer or Not to Offer: The Healthy Food Conundrum

    C-store operators can incorporate these ideas into their menu development and marketing processes to bring consumers into the healthy-ordering fold.

    Within the foodservice industry, there has been an ongoing battle over the issue of health and wellness. Consumers often indicate they seek “healthier” items, such as those low in sodium, fat, calories or sugar. Yet when operators offer these items, consumers tend to shun them for more indulgent, often tastier goods instead.

    For the convenience store foodservice operator, it is important to understand the “healthy” positioning that the c-store segment occupies relative to many of the other foodservice segments. This entails depicting, by segment, how important consumers consider healthy options vs. the likelihood they would actually purchase these items.

    While this exercise is very cursory and based upon empirical evidence alone, it clearly demonstrates that c-store consumers place less importance on health and wellness than consumers in nearly all other foodservice segments -- with perhaps the exception of vending.

    Sample Segments

    Importance of Offering Healthy Options

    Likelihood of Purchasing Healthy Options

    Fast Casual

    High

    High

    LSR Traditional (e.g., Fast Food)

    Medium

    Low

    Full-Service Restaurants

    High

    Medium

    C-Stores

    Low

    Low

    Vending

    Low

    Low

    In our latest consumer poll, c-store consumers indicated the top three reasons they visit a c-store for foodservice are its convenient location, cleanliness and the fact that it happens to be where gas is purchased (so they are already there). On the other hand, only 7 percent purchase food at a c-store because of the more healthful options offered (making it approximately the 28th important factor out of 30 listed, behind only ordering from a kiosk and drive-thru options).

    An operator, therefore, has a dilemma to face: To offer or not to offer healthful options?

    The answer, in Technomic’s opinion, is clearly the former. As mentioned in the opening, health and wellness is a long-term industry trend, as obesity, high blood pressure and other diet-related ailments increasingly afflict the American foodservice consumer. And probably more importantly, the government has begun its crackdown on menu labeling, which is only expected to expand into segments outside of limited-service chains.

    There are a number of reasons consumers shy away from ordering healthful items, but here are a few ideas that c-store operators can incorporate into their menu development and marketing processes to help bring consumers into the healthy-ordering fold.

    Definitions of Healthy

    When consumers are asked to define “healthy,” the responses given are as wide and far-ranging as the sample itself. Words such as “fresh,” “made-for-me,” “display cooking,” “no sodium,” “small portion sizes” and “no trans fats” are a few of the most common responses. The point is, consumers are largely unsure of how to define healthy, so it is up to the c-store operator to define it for his or her customer base. Each c-store concept caters to its own consumer set and therefore, it is important to establish a working definition and product range of items deemed healthful that will draw in, and not alienate, its customer base.

    Connotations of Healthy

    Perhaps the biggest obstacle to offering healthful foods is the fact that consumers equate the concept to “does not taste as good.” Consumers, who have been hoodwinked into buying low-fat ice cream, only to find it tastes like low-grade margarine, have only fueled this perception. C-store operators, therefore, should carefully determine which items best fit the “healthy” perception. Offering low-sodium taquitos, for example, will probably go a lot farther than offering a sugar-free frozen cappuccino. Sampling these newer and more healthful menu options during prime foodservice hours could also go a long way toward changing consumers’ perceptions.

    Target Consumer Base

    It has been shown that heavy-to-moderate users of c-store foodservice tend to prefer the “snackier” items offered in a c-store and therefore, do not consider it much of a venue for sourcing healthy fare. However, as McDonald’s debut of salads a few years ago showed, offering soccer moms an item they could purchase while the kids could order their cheeseburgers and fries paid off handsomely in the end. Offering healthier fare, such as fresh fruit, salads and rice bowls, may actually spur the spouse in the car to enter the store and purchase a salad along with her husband’s less-healthful fare. In other words, offering healthier items may attract a broader consumer base, particularly female consumers.

    As retailers are well aware, what consumers say and do are two completely different things. However, offering healthful items must be a part of any c-store operator’s long-term menu plan, considering the trend will only grow stronger in the industry. Hopefully some of the ideas in this column will provide operators with more clarity in the health and wellness puzzle.

    Tim Powell is director of C-store Foodservice Programs for Technomic Inc., a fact-based research and consulting firm that helps restaurants and food suppliers grow profitably with business-building guidance. He can be reached at [email protected].

    Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.

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