57% of Americans have made a c-store foodservice purchase in the last three months.

The convenience store foodservice market has experienced fairly strong growth with sales reaching an estimated $34.5 billion in 2016, according to Mintel’s Convenience Store Foodservice US 2017 report. However, while nearly three in five Americans make c-store foodservice purchases, consumers still have fairly negative views of c-store food, with many agreeing that c-store foods have too many artificial ingredients and often look unappealing. In fact, only a third of consumers agree that c-store foods are high quality.

Fortunately, a third of Americans are classified as True Loyalists; these are customers who would go out of their way for c-store food. These consumers skew male, Millennial, Hispanic and urban, and are an integral consumer group for the industry as they drive much of the positive sentiment surrounding c-store food.

What consumers are buying

Purchases tend to be quite diverse, but fountain beverages are the most purchased item overall, while pizza ranks as the top purchase among True Loyalists and may be driving these consumers’ positive perception of c-store food quality. What’s more, these heavy c-store consumers are also more likely to buy three or more items, compared to general consumers who purchase only one.

Operators should focus on personal-sized pizzas and pizza delivery, customizable items (such as salad bars and condiments for roller grill items) and coffee innovation (such as cold brew and espresso-based beverages), as these are the items consumers want more of.

Purchase drivers

Unsurprisingly, most purchases are driven by convenience, with many consumers saying they’ve bought a foodservice item because it was the fastest option or because it is easy to eat in the car. When developing a c-store foodservice program, operators need to focus on providing the customer with a convenient experience. One way operators are doing this is through kiosk ordering, which can be found at Sheetz, QuikTrip and RaceTrac.

Cleanliness is the most powerful quality indicator to consumers.

Convenience itself is not a differentiator for chains as consumers expect this. Instead, quality is what sets a c-store apart from the competition and builds loyalty. Cleanliness is the most powerful quality indicator to consumers as over half agree store cleanliness indicates a c-store has high quality food. Freshness is also critical and c-stores need to prove freshness through tangible cues. For example, at Laredo Taco Co. (a restaurant owned by the c-store chain Stripes) customers can watch employees hand make tortillas.

What’s Next?

Carbonated soft drink alternatives will become a bigger focus for operators as consumers shy away from sugary drinks. These include flavored teas and aguas frescas that provide a similar flavor experience and level of refreshment. Food quality will increasingly improve, including more items featuring poultry without antibiotics, build-your-own frozen yogurt bars and open kitchens where items are made in-house.

The competitive landscape for c-store operators is also evolving. US retailers including Amazon, Kroger, Dollar General and Walmart are expanding into the c-store space with entirely new concepts focused on urban dwellers making quick trips for food and drink, as well as household essentials. Even existing c-stores like Wawa are growing their standalone concepts to offer customizable foods, high quality beverages and on-premise dining.

What we think

It’s more important than ever for operators to focus on quality indicators, including eye-catching packaging, made-to-order items and simple ingredients. Continued food and beverage innovation is vital as consumers expect high quality options wherever they dine, and as competition heats up, both within and beyond the convenience store segment.

Amanda Topper is the Associate Director of Foodservice Research, responsible for overseeing all of Mintel’s foodservice offerings, as well as providing insight and competitive analysis across scheduled deliverables, and client and industry presentations. She was previously a Senior Analyst specializing in the retail food industry.

Caleb Bryant is a Senior Foodservice Analyst at Mintel. Caleb authors reports focusing on changing consumer attitudes, industry news and flavor/ingredient trends within foodservice.

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