Almost 20% of consumers said they noticed more healthy options."

For years, the convenience store industry has fought against the notion that its food is unhealthy, unappetizing and undesirable by all but the most iron-stomached road warriors.

Operators have worked hard to dispel the c-store’s reputation as a place to buy gasoline, beer, cigarettes, lottery tickets — and out-of-code packaged meat. Even as 7-Eleven opened food commissaries and top-level chains like Wawa, Sheetz and QuickChek became renowned for their award-winning hoagies (or subs or gyros or sandwiches, depending where you live), the stereotype has been stubbornly difficult to break.

As NACS CEO and President Hank Armour, a former c-store operator, noted last week during the NACS Show 2019, c-store retailers have been “demonized for the food we sold in our stores. The perception was that we sold unhealthy — and only unhealthy — food.”

In response, a few years ago NACS began working with “every health-focused group we could find,” Armour said. The effort paid off. In April, NACS received the Partner of the Year Award from the Partnership for a Healthier America, an organization that works with the private sector to solve the nation’s childhood obesity crisis.

The PHA Partner of the Year Award is presented to a partner that executes key strategies, including “focusing on those populations disproportionately impacted by obesity; doing well, while doing good; using an innovative approach to address childhood obesity and other chronic diseases; or creating a ripple effect within its respective industry.”

The award recognizes the efforts of the c-store industry to make the healthy choice the convenient choice, Armour noted. “Convenience stores serve 165 million Americans per day, and most customers are in and out of our stores with their food and beverage purchases in about three minutes. That is why it’s so important for retailers to provide cues that can help their customers make healthier choices.”

Fresher, Healthier

NACS research confirms the industry’s progress:

  • More than 40% of NACS retail members reported stocking more fresh fruit and vegetables over the first six months of 2018 and 24% stocked more cut fruits and vegetables.
  • C-stores have expanded their selection of health bars (45% of retailers surveyed said they stocked more), nuts/trail mix (35% stocked more) and packaged salads (37% stocked more).
  • More than half of all NACS retail members (54%) said they sold salads in 2017, a 10-point increase from 2013.

And consumers are noticing. Nearly one-third of those surveyed by NACS said c-stores were offering more prepared foods and almost 20% said they found more healthy options.

“We now sell a quarter of a billion dollars of fruit, which today is as popular of a snack in our stores as popcorn or pretzels,” Armour said. “Water sales are $4 billion, a healthy increase from just a few years ago.  And one in six dollars is spent on prepared food in stores.”

At the NACS Show 2019, consumer goods manufacturers showcased their investments in better-for-you products in c-store-friendly packages. In beverages, probiotic drink SKUs grew exponentially, kombucha became mainstream, oxygen water was hot and oat milk overtook almond milk as the “It” dairy substitute on the trade show floor. In salty snacks, banana and plantain chips were picked and chickpea snacks had retailers’ attention. Keto-friendly options exploded this year, as protein cookies joined the established protein bar lineup and meat snacks heralded less sugar in their ingredient lists.

But perhaps product makers’ desire to serve up better-for-you products to traditional c-store customers was best illustrated by an item in the smokeless tobacco category: Nicotine-free, tobacco-free dip made of tea leaves.

Advantage Solutions

Patricia Coe
Senior Director, Client Teams
Advantage Solutions

Patricia Coe's career includes senior roles in consumer goods, supply chain and business development. She is a member of the NACS Supplier Board's membership committee.