June 2017 Issue

The Retail RD: How Convenience Stores Have Evolved — Nutrition Is Good for Business
By Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 19, No. 6, P. 14

Dietitians don't think of convenience stores, with their 32-oz bottles of soda and hot dogs and taquitos on the roller grill, as destinations for healthful eating. However, due to their accessibility, these types of stores offer a unique opportunity to impact the diets of millions of Americans. One hundred and sixty million people—one-half of the US population—visit a convenience store in a single day, primarily to purchase gas or food or beverages for immediate consumption, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).1 There are three times as many convenience locations (154,535) as supermarkets (51,191) in the United States.2 The industry store count has doubled over the last 30 years and continues to grow annually.3 Consumer data from the NACS show that 84% of what's sold in stores is consumed within the hour, and, according to research from the Hartman Group, snacking accounts for one-half of all eating occasions in the United States.4 Convenience stores are well positioned to respond to the shifting eating habits of Americans and improve nutritional intake that can have a significant impact on public health.

Meeting Customers' Needs
Meeting the needs of core consumers is a way convenience store chains have evolved over time to remain relevant and become a powerful segment within the food and beverage retail landscape. In 1927, 7-Eleven, the world's largest operator, franchisor, and licensor of convenience stores, started as the Southland Ice Company in Dallas. Operating seven days per week, 16 hours per day, beyond the hours of other traditional grocers, they seized an opportunity to increase sales by offering customers the convenience to purchase basic staple items, including bread, milk, eggs, and ice.5 Constant evolution to meet customers' needs has led to the success and domination of the modern convenience store.

Since then, the majority of convenience stores have responded to consumer demand by operating 24 hours per day and selling gasoline. Today, they're responding to customers who are increasingly seeking more healthful options. In fact, market research from Technomic, Inc, a food research and consulting firm, reported that 53% of consumers said they would visit convenience stores more frequently if more healthful foods were available.6 In addition to traditional high-volume items including fountain beverages, beer, coffee drinks, donuts, hot dogs, pizza, burritos, salty snacks, and candy, convenience stores across the country are making efforts to offer more healthful options that appeal to their customers. Whether you shop at 7-Eleven, Circle K, Wawa, QuikTrip, Cumberland Farms, or any of the top regional convenience store chains, you can find a variety of nutritionally balanced options including sandwiches, fresh fruit, yogurt, packaged salads, hummus, veggie sticks, hard-boiled eggs, a variety of nuts and seeds, meat snacks, snack bars (eg, protein, energy, cereal), and more healthful beverages. According to NACS 2016 industry data, 50% of all single-serve bottled water and 45% of all single-serve sports drinks are sold in convenience stores.3 Beverage options in this segment have come a long way since the introduction of the iconic Slurpee 50 years ago, a beverage loaded with more than 17 g sugar per 8 oz. As a sign of changing attitudes toward health, in 2012, the first sugar-free version of the Slurpee was introduced to customers concerned about sugar and calorie intake, whether for dieting or due to diabetes or other medical concerns.

Guidance for Store Operators
Convenience stores also serve an important role by increasing access to food for millions of Americans who live in urban or rural areas not close to supermarkets. In a city such as Washington, D.C., 200,000 residents live in an area where a convenience store or corner store is the closest establishment to buy food.7 Small food stores, including convenience stores, also play a vital role in the lives of those using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to purchase food. Although the majority of SNAP purchases typically occur in supermarkets, convenience stores are gaining attention for the potential part they can play in improving public health in lower-income communities. Selling mostly cheap, nonperishable snacks and bottled beverages, these types of local, small food stores are traditionally lacking in healthful foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Yet, several pilot projects involving more healthful corner store programs exist in Philadelphia; Denver; Minneapolis; Chicago; New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Louisville, Kentucky, that serve as examples to other convenience stores across the country on how to improve access to healthful foods. In June 2016, the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service published the Healthy Corner Stores Guide with the goal of helping small store operators overcome obstacles in carrying, marketing, and selling more healthful foods and beverages including fresh produce, low-fat yogurt, and plant-based proteins such as nuts and seeds in underserved communities throughout the country.8

Convenience Store Dietitians
Similar to the trend in supermarkets, convenience store chains such as 7-Eleven have hired RDs. Convenience store dietitians are on the cutting edge, seeking ways to cut calories, sodium, and saturated fat and increase whole grains in a retail environment where fast, easy, and cheap foods dominate the shelves. These dietitians offer strategies to increase the availability of more healthful products, provide nutrition labeling expertise, and work on product innovation and more.

Patsy Ross, RD, has been working for 7-Eleven for more than 20 years and is behind the scenes on many of the health-focused initiatives the chain has launched in the past decade. One of the leaders in promoting health, the chain launched its own private label line of 7-Select GO!Smart options, which includes more than 400 items across all categories that prioritize nutritional balance of protein, carbohydrates, and healthful fats and are made with premium ingredients designed to offer customers more gluten-free, GMO-free, and organic food choices. Products introduced include breakfast sandwiches under 400 kcal and fruit and nut bars under 200 kcal, as well as whole foods like fresh fruit mixes, bean dips with chips, and a variety of other snacking and meal options both fresh and shelf-stable.9

Erica Flint, RD, is the dietitian for Kwik Trip, Inc, who's involved in food research and development for the LaCrosse, Wisconsin-based chain, which has more than 400 stores; a full-scale commissary, bakery, and dairy; and its own truck fleet that delivers fresh prepared foods daily to its stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. As a dietitian for the chain, Flint has been involved with spearheading many health-focused initiatives, such as increasing the availability of fresh produce in stores; lowering the sodium count of deli meats for sandwiches; offering lower-calorie, higher-fiber snack choices; and boosting the prevalence of more healthful beverages. In addition, with her guidance, Kwik Trip was the first convenience store to sign on with the Partnership for a Healthier America, a national campaign that brings together public, private, and nonprofit leaders to broker meaningful commitments and develop strategies to end childhood obesity.

Now, more than 1,000 additional convenience store operators across the country have followed suit to join the partnership and have committed to expand more healthful options, including beverages, as part of the Drink Up! (YouAreWhatYouDrink.org) campaign, which encourages customers to drink water more often.

Historically, the convenience store industry has evolved to meet customer needs; now, more than ever, promoting healthful foods and beverages is good for business and customers, too.

— Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN, is a retail health expert to supermarkets and food companies and founder of the Oldways Supermarket Dietitian Symposium. Follow her @BarbRuhsRD.

1. U.S. convenience store count. National Association of Convenience Stores website. http://www.nacsonline.com/Research/FactSheets/ScopeofIndustry/Pages/IndustryStoreCount.aspx. Accessed April 2017.

2. U.S. convenience stores continue growth. National Association of Convenience Stores website. http://www.nacsonline.com/Media/Press_Releases/2017/Pages/PR020217-2.aspx#.WPVMgVKZOdE. Published February 2, 2017. Accessed April 2017.

3. National Association of Convenience Stores. How convenience stores work and their contributions to communities. http://www.nacsonline.com/YourBusiness/Refresh/Documents/How-Stores-Work.pdf. Updated February 2017. Accessed April 2017.

4. Hartman Group. The future of snacking 2016. http://store.hartman-group.com/content/Future-of-Snacking-2016-About-Report.pdf. Published January 2017. Accessed April 2017.

5. Anzilotti E. A brief history of the 24-hour convenience store. CityLab website. http://www.citylab.com/navigator/2016/02/a-brief-history-of-the-24-hour-store/433953/. Published February 1, 2016. Accessed April 2017.

6. Crawford E. Convenience stores emerge as health food destination. FoodNavigator-USA website. http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Markets/Convenience-stores-emerge-as-health-food-destination. Published January 28, 2015. Accessed April 2017.

7. Khazan O. Why don't convenience stores sell better food? The Atlantic. March 2, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/cornering-the-market/386327/. Accessed April 2017.

8. US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. Healthy corner stores: making corner stores healthier places to shop. https://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/snap/Healthy-Corners-Stores-Guide.pdf. Published June 2016. Accessed April 2017.

9. 7-Eleven invites health-conscious customers to 'wise up' to new 7-Select Go!Smart fruit and nut bars. 7-Eleven Corporate website. http://corp.7-eleven.com/news/01-13-2015-7-eleven-invites-health-conscious-customers-to-wise-up-to-new-7-select-go-smart-fruit-and-nut-bars. Published January 13, 2015.

10. Hamaker S. Good for you and the bottom line. National Association of Convenience Stores website. http://www.nacsonline.com/magazine/pastissues/2015/april2015/pages/feature5.aspx. Published April 2015. Accessed April 2017.