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I’m driving in to work. I’m late. No time for coffee or fruit. I’m a hot mess. I think to myself, “If only I had ordered online for delivery this morning.” But alas, I forgot, plus you have to order 24 hours in advance. Suddenly, I see the bright number 7 and my car auto-pilots right into the driveway of the 7-Eleven. Dreaming of a 7-Eleven drive-thru, I muster the energy, park and go inside.
Inside, I opt for coffee and at the register, fruit. I buy both, plus gum and a pre-made salad for later. I’m not even looking at the total price. I am satiated knowing I will have my caffeine and not smell at my meeting; the gum is a great random purchase. I probably wouldn’t have realized I was out of gum until 9:30 when my coffee breath envelops me in the car on the drive back from my meeting. The salad is a welcome purchase, as I have nothing in the house. I absently wonder what I was charged, but that thought is quickly replaced with thoughts of other things.
There are those who believe that price trumps all with respect to the value proposition. Those in a lesser, but growing camp believe convenience is the only lever that can possibly trump price with respect to value proposition. The debate has been on for a very long time.
The need for convenience can vouch for more brick locations, yes, but what of the already massive and densely populated convenience stores that line our roadways?
Fresh is in, especially in grab-and-go. It is what customers today demand. Customers are desiring more fresh items, produce and ready-to-eat healthy options from their convenience stores.
How will the c-store industry address this when it has not been their forte yet? It is just like any cross-vertical entering the fresh arena. Fresh is a different animal and needs to be respected as such. You can’t simply throw fragile product out there on a shelf, as is commonly done.
Proper temperatures for fresh product are critical. Fruits and fresh food need explicit temperatures to last their longest. These temps range from 41 degrees for eggs, many produce items and some fruit, and up to 53 degrees for peppers and other types of produce and dairy items.
Your level of care of their fresh food says a lot to your customers. Gone are the days of just filling the shelves with stable product that can last longer than it takes for your 6-year-old to grow up. Fresh food needs attention. Fresh food needs maintenance, proper chill, proper rotation, inventive inventory creation, and more training. We need to understand the categories and subcategories demanded and come up with viable solutions to provide what customers want — and want from their convenience stores.
This is a lofty task. Customer demands for local sourcing of fresh adds more complexity to the challenge. And, with pinking and browning on salads from improper storage and 2-3 day freshness expirations, it is difficult at best to get this right. The convenience store industry needs assistance to handle these burgeoning requests.
Space allocation is critical in convenience stores, where square footage is at a premium. Interestingly, grocery stores have challenges with space as well. While you would think that keeping produce at exactly the right temperature is easy in grocery stores because of their extra space, think again!
I was recently doing a pilot in a large grocery store. While I was sampling product, I surveyed the produce staff stocking product. I found tomatoes that were on a shelf at a temperature of 40 degrees. I found tomatoes in a bin with an ambient temperature of 52 degrees. My final tomato viewing was on a vertical refrigerated stand that was 46 degrees (I used my trusty thermometer). When I spoke with the produce staff, they told me these were the only spaces they had for this product and that is why they were placed where they were.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that storage conditions below 55 degrees Fahrenheit damage the quality of tomatoes. At those temperatures, the flavor-producing enzymes that are normally present as a tomato ripens stop working. You wind up with a tomato that doesn’t taste anywhere near as good. Once the tomatoes are fully ripe, you can refrigerate them and add to their shelf life. Furthermore, bringing tomatoes back to room temperature right before serving will give you the best-tasting product. Who knew tomato temperatures were so complex?
Mastering temperature through rotation and monitoring will give you a product that lasts longer and tastes better. Imagine what attending to the temperatures of all produce and fresh items can do to the flavors of the foods that you sell, while decreasing the shrink at the same time.
Yes, it will be a bit of work to re-set some of your shelving to accommodate for the new fresh, grab-and-go products, but the return on investment will be well worth the extra attention.
There is a further customer agenda, too, albeit possibly a subconscious one. The increase in the proper presentation of fresh food and produce items in convenience stores will set the stage for continued evolution toward the other convenience “choices” customers need in the way they want to purchase these fresh, grab-and-go items — showcasing, selling and cross-selling these fresh products online, for in-store pickup, drive-thru and, yes, eventually online ordering and local delivery.
These are natural next steps following the proper management and maintenance of the now-augmented and locally sourced assortment (when possible) for the convenience store grab-and-go business. There is a convenience store around every corner. C-stores can become the bygone friendly milkmen of the 21st century and nothing will solidify the customer relationship more than that extra personal touch.
The customer experience mantra of the 21st century is becoming crystal clear: Customers demand convenience…Convenience dictates choice…Choice builds value…Value builds customers.
Fast forward to lunch time. I open my salad. There is pinking and browning. The expiration says today’s date. Should I eat this? Is it safe? The apple I bought has many dents and a hole in it. Could this be the one with the worm? At least with an oyster, I could get a pearl. I throw both away and scavenge by holding open the refrigerator door every 10 seconds to see if something new appears. I am not satisfied.”
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.