(Feb. 21) Fighting to remain competitive against grocery stores and supercenters that are increasingly offering more convenience items, convenience stores are turning more to fresh foods, including produce, to attract more health-conscious consumers.
“We are in an incredibly changing time in the convenience store industry,” said Stuart Lowry, marketing di-rector for Charlottesville, Va.-based Tiger Fuel Co., which owns The Markets, a 12-store chain that has chefs preparing fresh foods. The chain also features fresh produce prominently in some of its stores.
“I think the industry has to redefine what we do. We have to look at profit centers other than gas.”
C-store sales growth is forecast to decline from the 11.3% yearly growth the industry has experienced since 1998 to 3.8% through 2006, according to a study released Jan. 17 by Retail Forward, a Columbus, Ohio, retail research firm.
Trying to attract more consumers, C-stores are redefining convenience by gravitating toward the grab-and-go market while emphasizing foodservice and other ready to eat items, the report said.
“As competition intensifies, you have to differentiate yourself and better address what consumers want,” said Jeff Lenard, director of communications for the National Association of Convenience Stores, Alexandria, Va.
Convenience and healthy eating trends are converging in today’s C-stores. Offering fresh fruit is one way to meet the growing healthy eating category demand, Lenard said.
“We have seen an increase in fresh fruits and vegetables being sold in convenience stores,” he said. “7-Elevens are most common around here. Everywhere you go to, they are selling bananas and apples.”
7-Eleven Stores Inc., Dallas, the leading C-store chain with 5,700 locations, controls only 5% of the C-store mar-ket, Lenard said. One-store operations constitute more than half of U.S. C-stores.
Stores should consider using their existing produce vendors that supply fresh vegetables for their sandwich program to provide heads of lettuce, tomatoes and other produce items, Lenard said.
“The time pressures people are facing are so much greater and the traffic is so much worse, that if you can save your customers time, they will appreciate it,” he said. “If they just need a head of lettuce and can pop into the convenience store and get it, that can save them 15 minutes of navigating a large grocery store’s parking lot and waiting in the checkout line.”
Fruit salads, cut fresh on location, are offered at four of The Markets’ stores, Lowry said. Greek and garden sal-ads are among the salads offered.
A produce display greets customers at the Forest Lakes, Va., store.
“You walk in and that’s the first thing you see,” Lowry said. “We want our customers to perceive these places as being fresh. We want to differentiate ourselves as much as possible from fast-food operations.”
Lowry said the company plans to introduce a foodservice concept called Market Express at eight of its nondeli locations before spring. The stores will not feature the gourmet foods that four of its stores offer but will sell products, including fresh-cut salads, that are “a cut above the simple wedge sandwiches found in typical C-stores,” he said.
Some C-stores place baskets of pumpkins at their stores’ entrances.
“They do more than just create sales,” Lenard said. “They can create perceptions.”
Baskets of fresh apples tell customers the stores are offering fresh and healthy foods, Lenard said.
“They’re more likely to go inside the store and not just pick up the apple but buy a sandwich as well,” he said.
Capitalizing on time-starved dual-income families who feel guilty about serving pizza too many times, the chain also provides home-meal replacements, Lowry said.
On Dec. 4, 7-Eleven introduced a line of fresh food products, including salads, to nearly 700 Southern Califor-nia stores. Nearly 90% of the chain’s stores now offer fresh foods, including bananas, apples and oranges.