Tim York's Centerplate ( Photo courtesy Markon Cooperative )

I’m old enough to remember when 7-11 stores were only open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Founded in 1927, 7-11 stores are now in 17 countries with more than 65,000 stores. Its founder, Joe Thompson, once said, “Give the customers what they want, when and where they want it.” 7-11, the market leader in the convenience store category, has changed more than just its hours of operation to address Thompson’s credo, and a new breed of convenience stores are gaining traction.
Today, c-stores have adapted to the changing needs of consumers and are repositioning their product offerings to be healthier and fresher, while maintaining the convenience of a grab-and-go store. Many of the changes taking place are being driven by — you guessed it — millennials. 

“We think of our stores as a human recharging station as opposed to the traditional convenience store, which tears down your health,” said Lisa Sedlar, who is about to open her fourth Green Zebra Grocery in Portland, Ore. The concept behind Green Zebra is to create a convenience store that sells healthy food rather than the usual hot dogs and sodas. 

Green Zebra is now selling so much kombucha that it launched its own line of kombucha slushies with flavors including pineapple ginger and marionberry mint. It also serves as a pickup spot for consumers who have pre-ordered weekly boxes of fresh produce from local farms. 

Though c-stores like Green Zebra are geared toward a health-conscious consumer, they still represent a small percentage of the 154,000 c-stores in the U.S. Overall, c-stores account for 11% of the total U.S. retail and foodservice sales. 

In 2017, foodservice sales — which describes a broad category that mostly includes prepared food but also commissary foods and hot, cold and frozen dispensed beverages — were $53.3 billion, accounting for 22.5% of in-store sales and 33.9% of gross profit dollars, based on data from the National Association of Convenience Stores. 

Conventional retailers are also taking note of the c-store category, foodservice as a driver, and changing preferences of consumers. Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer unveiled a c-store concept that includes Starbucks, gasoline, fresh-prepared foods, and fruits and vegetables. Walmart is opening several c-stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the parking lot of its supercenters. 

Opportunities are wide open for grower-shippers who want to be part of this growing segment by:

  • Helping c-stores develop the fresh category with item selection, pricing and velocity.
  • Sharing best practices about how to sell and merchandize produce and reduce shrink. 
  • Capitalizing on the healthy snacking trend by offering products that are fresh, nutritious and can be eaten on-the-go. 
  • Looking for c-stores in which you can serve as a local supplier. 
  • Developing seasonal offerings that help create variety at c-stores and keeps consumers coming back. 

What may look like a niche segment may be ripe with opportunity in the fastest growing retail segment. 

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative. E-mail him at [email protected].