Safety Comes First

Consumer needs force retailers to rethink their priorities
Illustration by Nathan Hackett

CHICAGO — Across the board, from retailers and consultants to food suppliers and consumers, safety is the top priority when it comes to rebooting c-store foodservice.

“Your messaging must embody food safety,” says Jonathan Raduns, CEO of consultancy Merchandise Food LLC, Cherry Hill, N.J. “Whether that’s through cleanliness or how an item is packaged or served, you have to align with people’s expectations and communicate that ‘no one has touched this.’”

The numbers speak for themselves: Nearly half (46%) of consumers said that improved cleanliness and sanitization is the top change they hope c-stores make in the face of future potential waves of COVID-19—more than any other factor, according to Intouch Insight’s 2020 C-Store Consumer Habits Survey. Additionally, more than a third (39%) of consumers said that seeing covers around prepared foods and plexiglass guards for employees would be extremely important to their comfort levels while shopping in c-stores.

“Reassuring and demonstrating to guests that cleanliness and safety is the priority will continue to be a focus for c-store operators,” says Brian Ferguson, vice president and chief merchant for Pilot Co., Knoxville, Tenn.

Cleanliness also gives customers a sense of confidence. It tells them that the food they’re buying and the store they’re buying from are safe, says Cameron Watt, CEO of Intouch Insight, Ottawa, Ontario. Sixty percent of consumers said that total store cleanliness is extremely important in their decision to purchase prepared foods from c-stores, higher than any other reason, according to Intouch Insight.

“If I see an employee cleaning the PIN pad after the person who checked out before me, I immediately feel safer,” Watt says. “And if I don’t, I’m going, ‘Oh crap, I have to touch that next.’ ”

Prioritize Safety

The No. 1 change I hope to see c-stores make in the face of future potential waves of COVID-19 is …*

Extremely important when it comes to purchasing prepared food items in convenience stores …

*Numbers may not add up to 100 due to rounding

Source: Intouch Insight 2020 C-Store Consumer Habits Survey

Since mid-March, many operators nationwide have halted self-serve food and beverages and implemented new cleaning procedures. But with many states now in the latter stages of ending lockdowns and some operators even reopening self-service, food safety has become even more critical.

“Everyone is scared; everyone is anxious of the unknown,” says Marty Glick, vice president of sales for c-store distributor Harold Levinson Associates LLC, Farmingdale, N.Y. “If every touch point has employees walking around all day cleaning, that gives customers confidence in the program.”

7-Eleven, Irving, Texas, has led the charge with safety initiatives since early waves of the coronavirus, including increasing its standards and procedures for hygiene, hand-washing, sanitization, food preparation and frequency of cleaning high-touch surfaces. More recently, all 7-Eleven employees have been encouraged to wear masks and gloves when serving customers, and customers also have access to disposable gloves, tissues and sanitizer stations, says Chris Tanco, executive vice president and chief operating officer for 7-Eleven.

“As we navigate the changes resulting from COVID-19, we know customers need the convenience of grab-and-go food items, and they want confidence that products are packed in a safe and clean environment,” Tanco says.

To increase consumer confidence, the largest North American c-store chain has also designed security stickers for hot food, grill, entree and fresh bakery items. “Stickers are a small but effective way to remind customers that they don’t have to trade safety for convenience when they shop,” Tanco says. 

“Foodservice-focused c-store retailers that don’t provide these conveniences risk being left behind.”

Maverik either moved self-serve operations to clerk serve, or, in some cases, removed the option entirely at the start of the pandemic. More recently, the chain has halted its made-to-order program and has placed all self-serve hot foods in warmers and individually wrapped them for sale. Since Maverik has an open kitchen concept, it is currently installing sneeze guards and 6-foot barriers where orders are placed so customers are not huddled around where the food is made. The company is also “doubling down” on sanitization practices and has required all employees to wear masks and gloves and even tell sick customers to stay outside, says Kyle Lore, corporate executive chef for Maverik, Salt Lake City.

“We have messaging in the store—from the front door all the way through the inside— that if you have symptoms, don't come in,” he says.

While protective initiatives had generally led to positive consumer experiences in convenience stores during the pandemic, there’s still plenty of work to be done regarding safety and cleanliness. When asked to rate the safety level of the c-store most recently visited compared to other retailers on a scale from 1 to 10, the average mystery shop score was 7.5, according to Intouch Insight’s 2020 Mystery Shop Study.

These safety ratings imply that although many c-store operators understand that new safety standards will be required in a post-pandemic world, these protocols are not yet consistent across the industry, says Watt.

“You don’t want to be the one playing catch-up,” he says. “You want to know what people are expecting, and you need to get out in front of it.”

Although food safety demands will not dwindle anytime soon, c-store operators still must produce quality and craveable foodservice—the things that made their programs successful in the first place—to continually drive customer loyalty, says Donna Hood Crecca, principal for CSP sister research firm, Technomic, Chicago.

“Operators will have to double down on food safety,” she says. “But the consumer demand for fresh, quality, craveable and affordable foodservice items has not wavered.”

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