'From Minimalist to Gourmet': C-Stores and the Fresh Opportunity

Hartman Group offers "snapshot" of channel's highly fragmented foodservice experiences

The Hartman Group, "Convenience Stores & the 'Fresh' Opportunity"

BELLEVUE, Wash. -- The country's more than 149,000 convenience stores are not homogeneous. To learn how far they have come and where they need to improve, The Hartman Group sent a team of typical consumers into c-stores in Boston, Chicago, the Bay Area, Seattle and New York City. They visited independent and chain stores in urban, suburban and rural locations during the morning, afternoon and evening.

The market research firm complemented these observations with data and insights from its proprietary Eating Occasions Compass comprehensive database on American eating patterns, which tracks more than 41,000 eating occasions.

Known traditionally as the retail channel where "Bubba" shopped for cigarettes, beer and salted snacks amid NASCAR-inspired decor, c-stores have struggled with a bit of an image problem--accompanied by historically sparse selections of the fresh, less-processed food and beverages consumers want. Exceptions include chains such as Wawa, Sheetz and last year 7-Eleven, which cited research from Hartman as it launched an expanded selection of indulgent, organic and healthy snack foods.

The report, "Convenience Stores & the 'Fresh' Opportunity," is a snapshot of what U.S. c-stores are doing--and not doing--to attract modern-day consumers interested in buying fresh food on the go. With snacks comprising half of all eating occasions and c-stores well located to serve people juggling busy schedules, the industry is uniquely positioned to meet their needs.

As might be expected from such a large and fragmented channel, c-stores offer a wide range of fresh and prepared foods and beverages that reflect ongoing changes in food culture: The industry and its suppliers are broadening their offerings to shoppers eager for innovative, fresh, portable, high-quality food and beverages. Hartman's consumers saw sandwiches with ingredients that answer consumer demand for higher-quality culinary experiences (spicy chorizo and smoked Gouda on ciabatta), as well as interesting, portable snacks/mini-meals (sliced prosciutto and provolone with taralli bread/crackers in a sealed plastic container).

They also found many c-stores stuck in the distant past, from independent operators offering steamed hot dogs, beer and week-old, shrink-wrapped tuna sandwiches to regional chains built on a dated NASCAR-style decor and shopping experience. These minimally or garishly decorated formats are out of step with shoppers seeking higher-quality food and shopping experiences. They offer little besides utilitarian salted snacks, chilled beverages, coffee and unappealing foods. The shoppers frequently said, "That's something I'd eat only in an emergency."

Hartman's audit found independent c-stores offer the widest range of truly unique fresh food and beverage experiences, ranging from minimalist to gourmet. Typified by the lone gas station with a limited food-and-beverage selection, they are the most likely c-stores to offer what we dubbed an "altar to fresh": Very small refrigerated sections which, despite their size, carry interesting choices, from pre-made breakfast or lunch sandwiches (typically made by local suppliers) to yogurt, cut or whole fruit, single-serve cheese, hard-boiled eggs and pre-packed salads.

Bellevue, Wash.-based Hartman has helped clients across a diverse set of industries--from consumer packaged goods (CPG) and retailing to technology and telecommunications and from product innovation to marketing strategy--to convert consumer knowledge into highly successful outcomes.