Joining the Health Club

Long a bastion of ‘sinful’ choices, c-stores seek a fitter product selection

Bob Phillips, Freelance Writer

It’s not as if convenience stores are morphing into small versions of Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, but make no mistake: There is a movement afoot among consumers wanting healthier food and beverage products.

And while supermarkets may win most of that consumer spend, c-stores have become increasingly proactive in attracting these consumers.

“We’ve been talking about healthy for as many years as I’ve been here, knowing it’s important,” says Lynn Hochberg, director of product development for Wawa, Pa.-based Wawa Inc., which has more than 645 locations.

One of the problems with “healthy” is that it isn’t a category unto itself. Rather, it is a relatively small group of products at the high end of virtually every food and beverage category. Indeed, the very term “healthy consumption” is so amorphous that it can mean just about anything to anyone—and make it challenging for the c-store retailer to manage.

“A few years ago, we decided that this is something we had to get a handle on,” says Hochberg, who has been with Wawa for 18 years. “There are so many definitions of what is healthy, there is no one thing you can follow. There are guidelines, but you can’t manage ever person’s specific needs.

“We’ve taken the approach of managing the basics of what people continue to go back to time and time again—calories and fat.”

The trend is similar at Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based QuickChek, a family-owned convenience chain with  more than 120 locations throughout New Jersey and New York.

“We don’t have a specific ‘healthy segment’ per se,” says Jennifer Vespole, QuickChek’s director of  foodservice. “We market via callouts on signage and our computer touch screens. We have yet to make it a major external marketing campaign.”

Although there may be no “healthy” category to monitor, sales data confirms that many product groupings perceived as “good for you” are growing in the convenience channel—some more than others. Bottled water, a $3.2 billion category in c-stores, grew at a healthy 4% rate in dollar sales and 2.75% in unit sales for the 52-week period ending July 13, 2014, according to IRI’s Convenience AllScan data. Sports drinks, a $2.6 billion category, shot up 6.6% and 5.6% in dollar and units, respectively. (Click here to see sales data chart.)

According to Chicago-based IRI, the long-term growth trend of “healthy” categories in c-stores is also, well, healthy. In its report Category & Department Growth Trends: High-Growth Categories, IRI shows that shelf-stable canned juices more than doubled their unit volume in the convenience channel from 2008 to 2012.

Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now

“Good for you” isn’t slowing down. Angela Angelilli, executive vice president of Hinsdale, Ill.-based Royal Buying Group, a major purchasing consortium for the convenience trade, sees the trend continuing.

Angelilli points to Kellogg’s snack and beverage lines, including Bear Naked, Special K Protein Bars, gluten-free Special K Popcorn Chips and Breakfast 2 Go Shakes; and General Mills (Greek yogurt, meal bars and the Nature’s Valley line of products) and Oberto meat snacks as examples of proactive manufacturer initiatives.

Even some not-so-good-for-you products are feeling the love spill over. “In the tobacco category, we partnered with Smokey Mountain to provide a premium tobacco-free herbal snuff,” says Angelilli.

And in July, Royal Buying Group partnered with Dr Pepper/Snapple to offer their c-store customers a “Kid’s Zone” initiative that included Mott’s Juice, and Mott’s Healthy applesauce snacks. “We have also partnered with Cowberry Farms Frozen Yogurt to offer a low-fat alternative in the foodservice category,” she says.

In the world of fresh foodservice, things are clearly changing. Take Wawa’s proprietary Built-to-Order kiosk offerings.

“We’ve always had turkey and mustards,” says Wawa’s Hochberg. “You can build a sandwich that’s very healthy. Within the past few years, we’ve added extra sandwich toppings like fresh spinach and fresh cucumbers in addition to what we already had—lettuce, tomatoes and onions.”

If a customer enters Wawa to order a sandwich, he or she will find a separate button on the kiosk offering a 500-calorie-or-less menu. It includes breakfast, sandwich items, soups and beverages so shoppers can easily find the selections. In addition, Wawa recently updated the nutrition page on its website to help patrons calculate the nutritional value of food items.

“All our Wawa-branded food is on our website so that you can create your meal,” says Hochberg. Wawa also has introduced a common symbol on some low-calorie salads and breakfast sandwiches.

“We’re trying to highlight those lower-calorie grab-and-go items, things like salads under 400 calories,” she says. “We want to make it so that they easily stand out for customers who may want them.”

CONTINUED: Counting Calories