I recently received an email with feedback from one of my presentations at the NACS Show. Although it was overwhelmingly positive, one comment caught my attention:
Put side by side, healthy vs unhealthy, consumer choice is unhealthy. We get an industry black eye for providing consumer choice.
There’s a kernel of truth there. After all, Americans aren’t exactly known for making the healthiest choices with regard to food consumption. But is this the fault of convenience stores? If the customers of an independent gas station choose to purchase candy, chips, soda, and roller dogs, does that mean the owner is to blame?
Fortunately, it’s not even necessary to engage that debate.
Grocery stores sell plenty of junk food, but I’ve yet to see complaints that Hy-Vee, Kroger, and Whole Foods are aiding and abetting the obesity crisis. Does this mean there’s a double-standard for convenience stores? Perhaps. But I don’t think it’s that simple.
Take a look at Sheetz and Kwik Trip. I’ve made numerous trips to their stores, and they sell plenty of products that one might describe as “unhealthy”—including delicious scotcharoos (my kryptonite) that require every ounce of willpower not to purchase.
But nobody talks about that.
Instead, we’re told that Kwik Trip allows each employee to have a free piece of fruit each day. We know that they’ve hired a dietitian—a wonderful individual named Erica Flint—and we also know that each store sells, on average, around 400lbs of bananas per day.
And what about Sheetz? We know that it’s been a company policy to have a minimum of ten healthful items within an arm’s reach of the cash registers at their new stores. We also know that Sheetz—like Kwik Trip—has partnered in the past with the Partnership for a Healthier America.
The narrative isn’t about the scotcharoos, the soda, the pastries, or the fact that it’s probably possible to order a 1,500 calorie meal using the made-to-order touchscreens at Sheetz.
Why? Because rather than being part of the problem, those stores are part of the solution. They try to sell healthier food, and they work hard to find ways to make it happen.
That’s also where the industry is heading.
According to the Hudson Institute, while consumers don’t entirely agree about the definition of healthy, they’re buying more fruit, more vegetables, and less of the traditional staples like sugary soda and roller dogs. Healthful choices are increasingly popular, and there’s a big opportunity for convenience stores to capitalize on this.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
The owner of one of my favorite stores, for example, told me that while he’s tried to sell bananas, his customers don’t seem interested. That’s why his store doesn’t have a lot of fruit. And it’s not that he’s opposed to doing so; if his customers want something, he’s the type of guy who will find the most innovative way to make it happen.
There’s certainly challenges—that much is true. But it’s important to remember that this is a transitional phase.
The topic of healthful choices is a consistent and ever-present conversation at the moment, but a relatively recent development. There’s kinks to work out of the system. Solutions and strategies to create. Best-practices to discern, and stories to tell. It’s a work in progress. And even though we’ll get where we want to be, eventually, we’re not there quite yet.
There’s been a lot of progress though. I grew up around Des Moines, Iowa, and I know what gas stations were like as a kid. I remember the small, cramped buildings full of snack food, soda, and cigarettes. I remember the ubiquitous oil stains around dirty parking lots. It’s no surprise that some folks still maintain a “not in my back-yard” attitude regarding the possibility of new stores.
But let’s contrast that with what we see around Des Moines today. Kum & Go’s new stores are a work of art: heated, outdoor patios, modern ascetics, gorgeous restrooms, beer-growler stations, and a pervasive sense of cleanliness. They’re so great that the Des Moines Register even writes about the construction of a new store. And the same can be said of Casey’s, QuikTrip, and HyVee Gas. QT’s employees regularly power-wash the parking lots.
Go ahead and put one in my backyard!
That’s because—to use the words of Rahim Budhwani, the 2016-2017 NACS Chairman—c-stores are community stores. When they’re done right, they important role in their communities. It’s what I saw when I visited with customers at Kwik Star in Marshalltown, Iowa. There was a real sense of pride. Customers weren’t just excited to shop there; they were also excited to tell me why.
The industry is moving in a positive direction. As far as I can tell, that’s the state of things at the moment.
Does the industry get a black eye for responding to consumer demand for unhealthy products? Perhaps. But that’s not always going to be the situation, and it’s certainly not the present situation for many stores.
I shared that individual’s comment with someone else in the industry, and I particularly like his response. He drew an analogy to Gladys Roy and Ivan Unger: the two individuals from that infamous, black-and-white photo of a tennis match atop an airplane.
Their one secret to success: one foot at a time. Two feet at once means you are airborne and it won’t end well. We need to go one step at a time as well.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed with this discussion and assume that “providing healthful options” is code for “radical, drastic changes to your store’s model”, but that’s not true. Nobody argues that all convenience stores must become miniature versions of Whole Foods or the local farmers’ market, and nobody expects this issue to be figured out by tomorrow morning. It’s a work in progress. It begins with one step at a time.
That’s why the question isn’t if or why the industry gets a black eye, but rather what steps each of us can take to move forward—what steps we can take to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Because in the end, those are the stories that people will tell.