Should c-stores go healthy for the sake of kids?

Photo: @ritusangle via Twenty20
Dec 16, 2020

Convenience stores are go-to spots for snacks in many neighborhoods, but a recent study shows that offering unhealthier fare is having a negative impact on the health of the communities they serve — in particular on kids.

Childhood obesity increases in low-income areas with large minority populations when c- stores offer a great deal of unhealthy foods, according to a new university study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Conversely, when small grocery stores sell healthier options in the proximity of where children live, it appears to improve health. The study was based on two cohorts of three- to 15-year-old kids in four low-income New Jersey neighborhoods whose habits were followed between two, two- to five-year long periods from 2009 through 2017.

In recent years, customers have become more particular about the social responsibility positions of retailers they patronize. This could make c-stores contributing to childhood obesity in low-income neighborhoods a cause for concern among shoppers who visit not just mom-and-pops, but chains like 7-Eleven.

Skewing healthier would do more than just appease socially conscious customers, however. C-stores have been profiting with healthier assortments; in 2019 the industry saw such products gaining significant popularity with customers. At the time, Jeff Lenard, NACS vice president of strategic industry initiatives, said that offering fresh and better-for-you packaged goods had become almost an expectation in the industry.

Some prominent grocers outside of the c-store space have even re-architected stores to subtly directing customers towards healthier snacking options. As far back as 2015, Target announced an initiative to replace the assortment of sodas, candy bars and the like positioned near the checkout with granola bars and other snacks from both national brands and Target’s private label.

Customers’ snacking habits, at least before the novel coronavirus pandemic, were trending toward fare that was, if not healthier, at least positioned as such. The “better-for-you” category of snacks grew significantly in the later part of the 2010s, leading major CPGs Hershey and Campbell to make major acquisitions of brands specializing in such products.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, while snacks sales have increased across the board, unhealthy “comfort” snacks have seen the biggest gains.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is making money on the sale of healthier foods a bigger challenge for convenience stores than grocers? How can small stores balance the public health implications of the food options they sell with the demand for unhealthier items?

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"C-stores make their money selling things that aren’t particularly good for folks, so you are talking about a huge change in the economic model."

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23 Comments on "Should c-stores go healthy for the sake of kids?"

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Neil Saunders

C-stores should sell what is in demand and, certainly, they should try to offer healthier choices if there is the scope to do so. I think many creative retailers will find that there is an opportunity to increase sales by exploring the many innovative healthy snacking products that are available. All that said, it is ultimately the responsibility of parents – and not of retailers – to look after the health of their children.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
1 year 7 months ago

Many convenience stores have modified their assortment in the past year with a greater focus on creating a more well-rounded shop since c-stores have become fill-in shops during the pandemic. As far as completely eliminating candy and comfort snacks – I don’t see how you could completely remove these without sales suffering.

Ralph Jacobson

I don’t like that we’re “picking on” c-stores in this article. Two points to make: 1.) All food stores should offer healthy choices to shoppers so, 2.) The shoppers can make decisions on their own without be told by the individual store how to live their lives.

Gene Detroyer

C-stores have always been about unhealthy choices, even before they were deemed “unhealthy.” C-stores are a retail business selling products that their customers want. And for those quick stop urges, customers aren’t thinking healthy. Where else can you get a refreshing drink with 38 (yes, 38!) teaspoons of sugar in it?

They can throw some healthy products into their mix, but I wouldn’t hold out hope that they are going to sell much.

Ryan Mathews

Let’s look at the article. Matthew is talking about communities where c-stores aren’t for fill-ins or picking up a self-indulgent treat, he’s writing about neighborhoods where the only place to do your shopping is in a c-store or party store because there aren’t any supermarkets. That’s the first problem. Next, better for you is not the same as good for you and eating a steady diet of products that are advertised as “better for you” could still lead to obesity, Type II diabetes, etc. Finally, if you took everything out of a c-store that wasn’t actually healthy, how much would you have left? C-stores make their money selling things that aren’t particularly good for folks, so you are talking about a huge change in the economic model: no alcohol; no tobacco; no fast food; no candy; no over-sugared baked goods; no jerky (too much salt); no soft drinks; etc. The question is, is that really a viable business model?

Gary Sankary

Great point – we’ve been involved in a couple of projects over the years to understand and address food deserts in the U.S. and how to give access to healthy food options in underserved communities. It is a significant problem, not just for the people who don’t get the access to healthy food, but to our overall economic well being from rising health care costs that disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities.

Dr. Stephen Needel

You balance the implications by carrying both healthy and regular snacks. It’s not the retailer’s job to change the community,, but it can only help their business if both types of snacks are available. Don’t want your kids eating junk? Teach them to make healthier choices when they go to the store.

Rich Kizer

Who would argue about keeping kids healthy? I’m sure every merchandising plan has a strong emphasis on candy, etc. Why? Turn is high and margins are good. That’s why you see cereals merchandised lower in the big stores — it’s all about customer sight lines, and that is where that customer is. I do think the industry is trying to change, and for that I thank them.

Georganne Bender

It just makes sense that c-stores offer a variety of snacks. There is room for both Hostess cupcakes and healthy alternatives. Ultimately it is up to the consumer to choose what they want. Price has a lot to do with choice as well. Candy bars cost between 99 cents and $1.25 while nutrition bars sell for $3.50 and up. Often the choice isn’t about what you want to eat, it’s what you can afford.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

A healthy c-store is an oxymoron. Yet, for that very reason, there is a profound opportunity for just that. That requires significant changes to the existing value chain. It’s not a question of “if” but “when.”

Brandon Rael

There is a prime opportunity for c-stores, grocery operations, and pharmacy retailers to capitalize on the healthier snack trends. While there are outstanding margin and revenue opportunities, the consumer behaviors have shifted and the demands are there for c-stores to go healthier for the sake of everyone, especially the kids.

It’s clear that there are innovative and creative healthier snacking options and meal replacements that c-stores could capitalize on. While some folks may prefer the non-healthy traditional snacks, health consciousness, wellness, and nutrition are on the rise, and the stores’ assortments should be reflective of these trends.

Steve Montgomery

The c-store industry continues to add value to meet the changing needs of customers. Once the bastion of smokes and Cokes, c-stores now carry a wide variety of items that include healthy snacks and fresh foodservice items.

Is this true in every c-store? No, but the owners carry items that their customers will buy and that they can secure through the supply chain. Items such as fruits, vegetables and other perishables might sell in a location but even if there are vendors who might service their area, meeting order minimums is not always easy and doing so may mean being willing to accept a high spoilage rate.

Meaghan Brophy

C-stores should sell a variety of snack options – including lots of healthy foods. Stocking healthier snacks from local brands, innovative products, and prepared foods can help drive some appeal. But healthy food options also need to be sold at a price point that’s similar to comfort foods. And that is something that c-stores have less control over unless they cut into their margins.

Ricardo Belmar

This reminds me of when CVS decided to stop selling cigarettes in support of public health. Considering the trends in recent years of c-stores adding fresh food options to compete with QSRs, I expect this trend towards fresh and healthier food options to continue in the industry. However we shouldn’t expect c-stores to just abandon product categories that perform well for them – even if they are unhealthy snack foods. If customers keep buying them, c-stores will keep selling them – that’s part of what makes them “convenience stores.”

Selling healthier foods might seem like a risk for these retailers, but those that have started selling healthier fare have shown how profitable it can be and how it can draw in more foot traffic. It won’t be an overnight change, but the trends will continue in this direction.

Ed Rosenbaum

What they should do and what they will do are two different things. They make their money on people coming in the store and buying stuff they probably shouldn’t.

Doug Garnett

Every time we come up with a theory for “solving” something like childhood obesity we need to step back. There are always unintended consequences. Do we know that convenience stores are the problem? I seriously doubt it.

Let’s take a look at an unintended consequence: They are one of the few destinations for kids to be on their own and that’s critical to kids growing up (especially in this fearful world we live in today). Is it going to contribute more to obesity to remove a reason for kids to get away from the PlayStation?

Convenience stores shouldn’t go out of their way to be “unhealthy,” but they also are not responsible for all of society’s ills.

Raj B. Shroff

Historically for c-stores making money on healthier foods has been difficult. Typically, people say they want to eat healthier but their purchases don’t always align with that.

However the market is slowly changing. Ultimately people want choice and are open to mixing in a healthier option now more than ever.

C-stores can balance any conflicts by introducing healthier options to complement, not to replace, traditional snacks. Continue to talk to shoppers, test items, see what sells and optimize. If a c-store skews too far “healthy,” too fast, it will damage their business unless that’s what their shoppers want — rather than what their shoppers just say they want so they don’t feel guilty.

Rachelle King
We all have to do what we can to survive this pandemic. So, yes, comfort food is on the rise. So is excessive drinking, but who is questioning the adult beverage industry? So, we have to, to the extent possible, separate changes in consumer behavior driven by the pandemic vs. without the pandemic. Consumers were trending towards a better-for-you space but right now, that may be tough for anyone to define. Notwithstanding the pandemic, the small study on how changing food options in local stores can have an impact on obesity in kids is worthy of pause. Low income parents of obese children have difficult decisions to make every day. When the cost of a bag of chips is cheaper than fresh fruit and vegetables, cash in hand is the deciding factor, not what would be best for my kids. The connection between income and obesity has long been glazed over. There is a tendency to blame these parents for making poor choices but not nearly as much effort is placed in trying to understand… Read more »
David Adelman
Unfortunately, as we all know, unhealthy snacks sell. Just look at Pepsico’s recent launch of its DTC Pantry Shop and websites. Especially during the pandemic, many consumers reached for quick snacks to help increase their dopamine and serotonin levels to eliminate lockdown sadness, albeit briefly. I think as we come out of the pandemic, hopefully by the end of 2021, C-stores should definitely react to the health-conscious family. This doesn’t mean eliminating chocolate bars and chips, but rather introducing larger assortments of healthier snacks in plain view; perhaps on endcaps. Instead of offering fried chicken wings, hot dogs, and egg rolls to go beside the till point, perhaps C-stores can integrate some fresh healthy alternatives rather than deep-fried or high fructose corn syrup products. Shareholders generally demand profits at any cost unless of course, you have Bill Gates at the helm! Unfortunately, this thinking ignores the health of our children and society in general which continues to be a huge dilemma for many public companies. Will companies ever put the sustainability of our world… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom

Yes, of course it’s a bigger challenge, but then it’s a bigger challenge for an ice cream parlor or a hot dog stand or … well you get the idea. Just because we want society to be offered balanced choices doesn’t mean each and every retailer needs to be balanced. And of course some don’t want “balance” — the augmenting of unhealthy with healthy, however that’s defined (an issue in itself) — they want the elimination of the former. So “patronize” is the right word here … or maybe “paternalize.”

Mel Kleiman

It is not the job of the retailer to control what people buy. If buyers want healthier options, retailers will be glad to provide them. It is not up to the retailer to tell them what to buy.

dave hochman
1 year 7 months ago

No, because they’ll go out of business, and that doesn’t help anyone.

John Karolefski

Let’s be practical. Many c-stores make their money selling beer, salty snacks and hot dogs. Eliminate them and the store goes out of business. The retailer with a conscience would offer a blended assortment with “healthier” options. Will that happen? Depends on where the store is located.

"C-stores make their money selling things that aren’t particularly good for folks, so you are talking about a huge change in the economic model."

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