Blending Health and Convenience | NACS Online – Magazine – Past Issues – 2015 – October 2015
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Blending Health and Convenience

New research shows that a certain consumer segment is seeking better-for-you options and can drive profitability.

​By Chris Blasinsky

The American population is looking for information and guidance on how certain foods and beverages can enhance their health, as well as transparency about food ingredients so they can make informed decisions. By becoming more aware about their food choices, they gain a greater sense of control over their quality of life.

Healthy eating, clean living, food labels citing the absence of negatives are all characteristics indicating the sea change describing today’s more health-conscious consumers. These shoppers comprise a majority of Americans—and yes, even those shopping convenience stores. This health-conscious movement, however, puts many convenience store operators in a tough spot: How do retailers find the middle ground between the consumers who want more of the healthier, better-for-you foods and the core traditional consumer for which health and wellness plays a smaller role?

So what’s a retailer to do? Paint a line down the middle of the store and create an entire healthy, organic, gluten-free, GMO-free, fat-free, low-sodium, high-protein food and beverage section? There’s no question that approach would likely fail to generate optimal sales per square foot. And it would also leave money on the table from customers who actually want those healthy items. (We’ll get to that later.)

It is possible for retailers to continue to exceed the expectations of their core shopper and grow a customer base that’s currently being overlooked—and already shopping in the store—by developing a better-for-you strategy.

Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) research discovered that an overwhelming majority of consumers (88%) believe in the connection between diet and overall health. This is one of the key findings that also emerged from a study recently commissioned by NACS and led by the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The Health & Wellness Revolution
Convenience store shoppers increasingly understand the importance of consuming healthy, nutritious foods for maintaining a wholesome, balanced lifestyle. According to the Hudson Institute, NMI research shows that 76% of c-store shoppers are eating healthier today than in 2007 (66%), while 71% said eating healthy is a vital part of their life.

Many of today’s better-for-you snacks incorporate elements such as protein, fiber, antioxidants and vitamins that pack a substantial nutritional punch. These are also the types of ingredients that about 75% of total U.S. convenience store shoppers are searching for as a way to eat healthier, satisfy their appetite and avoid calorie-laden fast foods.

When it comes to snacking, shoppers are purchasing more fresh and nutritious food in convenience stores. Overall, 44% of Americans say convenience stores offer nutritious items, which is a strong increase from 30% in 2013, according to an April 2015 NACS Consumer Sentiment Survey. And the numbers continue to improve. Nearly half of all consumers (48%) surveyed by NACS in September 2015, agreed that convenience stores are a destination for purchasing fresh food items, a noticeable increase from the 43% who said so a few months ago in the March 2015 survey.

“Snacking occasions are a great opportunity for the convenience store channel to capture wellness seekers, especially as more and more CPGs develop products that are natural/organic, higher in protein, offer less calories, etc.,” said Steve French, managing partner at the Natural Marketing Institute.

Drilling Down to C-Stores
NMI’s Health and Wellness segmentation model divides consumers into five, mutually exclusive groups based on their attitudes and behaviors about health and wellness.

While most of these customers are frequenting a convenience store at some point to purchase fuel, one group in particular can help retailers grow better-for-you offers without alienating the core customer base: the FENCE SITTERS.

FENCE SITTERS represent the highest concentration of convenience store shoppers (almost four in 10 shoppers) among NMI’s five consumer segments. These consumers strive to be healthier, and their busy lifestyles dictate a need for quick, on-the-go, tasty and kid-friendly food options. Compared to the other segments, they also:

  • Have a higher median income
  • Are Millennial-aged
  • Have kids
  • Have a higher annual basket ring at convenience stores

Also important: This segment is increasing as a percent of the total U.S. population, from 18% in 2009 to 25% in 2014. Although FENCE SITTERS aren’t making as many trips to a convenience store as core user EAT, DRINK & BE MERRYS, these shoppers spend about $30-$40 more annually on a wider array of healthy categories.

The good news about FENCE SITTERS is that they’re already shopping your stores; the not-so-good news is that they’re underserved in the better-for-you space. New research by NACS, as part of its reFresh initiative, reveals how convenience stores can build their better-for-you business and move the FENCE SITTERS onto a more solid surface.

Daypart Destination
“The most important meal of the day” presents a healthy opportunity. NMI research reveals that taste wins across all eating occasions (breakfast, lunch and dinner), but nutrition is the highest attribute consumers are looking for at breakfast time. In fact, a nutritious breakfast trumps both convenience and cost.

There is strong competition for capturing breakfast lovers, with QSRs such as McDonald’s now offering an all-day breakfast menu, so attracting customers during the morning hours with healthier, grab-and-go breakfast options is a huge opportunity for convenience stores.

“Breakfast is a great entry point for convenience retailers to introduce healthier foods,” said Jeff Lenard, NACS vice president of strategic industry initiatives. “Stocking open-air coolers with high-protein foods such as hard-boiled eggs, Greek yogurt with granola, fresh-cut fruit, or offering hot oatmeal and breakfast sandwiches with egg whites, turkey sausage and whole grains can increase the better-for-you value proposition of convenience store foodservice.”

Breakfast is also the meal occasion where convenience stores can attract FENCE SITTERS with healthier options. NMI research shows that 57% of this segment indicates they are eating healthier at breakfast compared to lunch (40%), dinner (50%) and snacking (37%).

Education Is Key
NMI research also indicates that 66% of U.S. convenience store shoppers say they are interested in healthy foods and beverages that can be consumed on-the-go, while 55% say they often give up convenience for health benefits. This presents a notable opportunity for c-store operators to offer more better-for-you products to customers who are giving up convenience for health.

Approximately two-thirds of convenience store shoppers also show strong desire for their favorite store to carry an array of healthy and natural food products, such as:
• Foods naturally high in vitamins and minerals
• Dairy, meat and poultry products that are natural/ organic, free of hormones and antibiotics
• Fresh organic fruits and vegetables
• Locally grown produce

Looking closer at FENCE SITTERS, NMI research suggests they are often confused about which products are actually healthy, giving c-stores yet another opportunity to educate these customers and help them make more informed better-for-you food choices.

Cost can be a barrier for FENCE SITTERS, who perceive healthier foods as a more expensive option. NMI research shows that two-thirds of the segments say they don’t consume healthier options more often because of expense, followed by availability (50%), their kids won’t eat it (46%) and spoilage (43%). Therefore, convenience retailers should consider pricing better-for-you foods so that the cost does not exceed value, and educate consumers about such benefits. FENCESITTERS are high Internet users and above-average mobile users, which makes social media a quick and inexpensive way to communicate nutritional value and kid-friendly appeal, as well as highlight products that are all-natural/organic, vitamin/nutrient rich and protein-rich.

Inside the store, retailers can capitalize on the growth of better-for-you foods while still attracting core customers who aren’t as interested in healthier options. The Hudson Institute suggests a few opportunities for educating the FENCE SITTERS, such as identifying better-for-you products at the point of purchase to help guide decision-making. Also, consider carving out a “Healthy Family/Healthy Kids” section as a quick, one-stop shop for time-starved parents to purchase healthier products.

“The convenience store industry is ripe for offering more better-for-you foods and reaching consumers who are seeking healthier options from their local c-store,” said Hank Cardello, senior fellow and director the Hudson Institute’s Obesity Solutions Initiative.

Lenard added: “Our industry is in a great place with respect to trends and consumer demand. Consumers want both more convenience and more better-for-you items, and they increasingly see us as a place to get them.”

Chris Blasinsky is the NACS director of editorial projects. She can be reached at cblasinsky@nacsonline.com.