By Sarah Hamaker
A few years ago, Tom Lees, owner of Pat’s Place in Philadelphia, only stocked a few onions and apples tucked into a corner amidst typical convenience store fare. Today, a refrigerator case appears front and center with a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables: tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, green peppers, baby spinach, white onions, red grapefruit, romaine lettuce and sliced carrots. Potatoes and bananas are nestled into nearby baskets.
“I’m a businessman,” said Lees. “If I can make 70 cents on a can of Coke and the same profit on a tomato, then why wouldn’t I stock the tomatoes?”
Lees’ store is one of 660 convenience stores enrolled in the Philadelphia Healthy Corner Store Initiative, which is a program of The Food Trust. The initiative is made possible by funding from the Philadelphia Department of Health’s Get Healthy Philly Initiative. The program is one of a growing number of groups dedicated to bringing fresh produce to underserved urban and rural areas across the United States. Convenience stores have been an important target of those efforts, especially since corner stores are often the closest place where residents of so-called food deserts can purchase food items.
“Our goal is that all people should have the ability to access affordable, healthy food, and can make healthy choices no matter where they’re shopping for food,” said Karen Shore, director of consulting and technical assistance at The Food Trust. With corner stores such an integral part of many local communities, the initiative wanted those locations to have options and consistent messaging about healthful foods to encourage residents to make healthier choices.
But the Philadelphia Healthy Corner Store Initiative is more than just getting convenience stores to carry more fresh produce — the program is designed to show retailers that having a more healthy selection benefit their bottom line too. “The representative from the program showed me data that I could make as much money selling two tomatoes as I could soda,” said Lees. “I didn’t realize produce could have such a decent markup.”
“We have developed a suite of materials to talk with store owners about the benefits both to them and their customers of carrying more healthful selections,” said Shore. The tiered model starts retailers out with small changes. “To join the program, we ask the store owner to select at least four healthy products within two categories to add to their store, such as low-fat dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.”
The program doesn’t stop with merely enrolling stores at the ground level. Representatives check back with the store owners periodically to help iron out any problems that might arise, such as sourcing or distribution. “We offer retailers an incentive of $100 after they are enrolled in the program to encourage participation and to help offset the risk of trying something new,” said Shore.
For engaged retailers, the second step would be to add in-store marketing materials identifying the store as participating in the program and giving shoppers information to guide them in making healthy choices. For example, the program offers shelf-talkers highlighting the benefits of particular foods, such as whole grains.
In addition, the Philadelphia Healthy Corner Store Initiative provides technical training for the all retailers involved with the program. “This is designed to help the owner sort, stock, price and merchandise healthier products to sell well and meet customer needs,” said Shore. “Many independent owners have challenges sourcing healthier foods or fresh produce, and we help them a lot here, such as working to link the stores to wholesalers and distributors to achieve a consistent supply of healthful products at a reasonable cost.”
About half of the third-tier-level stores have gone above and beyond by consistently participating in the program and maintaining a well-stocked inventory of healthy items. Lees is one of those retailers. “Before, I wasn’t selling much produce. Now, I’m selling about $60 to $80 worth of produce every two weeks. In my small area, that’s great,” he said. “Foot traffic for produce has increased 20% as well.”
What’s even more important to Lees is that customers are now viewing his store as a place to pick up a soda and a head of lettuce. “People are coming in more frequently because of the fresh produce,” he said, adding that he keeps a running tally of fruit and veggie requests in order to add things customers want. “To me, there’s no drawback to the program.”
His success is playing out in other convenience stores around Philadelphia. “Even stores at the first level of the program added an average of 37 new varieties of healthy foods and beverages,” said Shore.
“Clearly there is a need and demand in communities for good food. With the right supports, corner stores and other small stores are able to make selling healthy a successful part of their business model.” Currently, the Philadelphia Healthy Corner Store Initiative is piloting a point-of-sale system in six stores in order to gather even more data on how the program is working.
For retailers like Lees, the takeaway has been that customers do buy healthier products if those items are available. “As long as you make money, why not offer healthy items?” asked Lees. “To me, I want to eat healthy and have my customers eat healthy, and I want my business to succeed. With this program, I’ve accomplished the same goal.”
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and NACS Magazine contributor based in Fairfax, Virginia. Visit her online at www.sarahhamaker.com.