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C-Stores and the “Fresh” Opportunity

c-stores and the fresh opportunity report cover

Known traditionally as the retail channel where “Bubba” shopped for cigarettes, beer and salted snacks amid NASCAR-inspired décor, convenience stores have struggled with a bit of an image problem—accompanied by historically sparse selections of the fresh, less processed food and beverages consumers want. Exceptions include chains such as Wawa, Sheetz and last year 7-Eleven, which cited research from The Hartman Group as it launched an expanded selection of indulgent, organic and healthy snack foods.

Obviously, the country’s 149,000-plus convenience stores are not homogeneous. To learn how far they have come and where they need to improve, The Hartman Group sent a team of typical consumers into convenience stores in Boston, Chicago, the Bay Area, Seattle and New York City. They visited independent and chain stores in urban, suburban and rural locations during the morning, afternoon and evening. These observations were complemented with data and insights from The Hartman Group’s proprietary Eating Occasions Compass comprehensive database on American eating patterns, which tracks more than 41,000 eating occasions. 

This white paper explores the fresh and less processed food being offered by a cross section of convenience stores, including consumer perceptions of independent and chain-store meals and snacks. Matched with data on snacks, Millennials and female demographics, the white paper provides insights and recommendations on convenience-store shopping experiences, merchandising, store designs and fresh categories.





The white paper is a snapshot of what U.S. convenience stores are doing—and not doing—to attract modern-day consumers interested in buying fresh food on the go. With snacks comprising half of all eating occasions and convenience stores well located to serve people juggling busy schedules, the industry is uniquely positioned to meet their needs. Here’s a sample of what’s inside the white paper: 

Fresh and the C-Store: Glimpses of Emerging Food Culture 

As might be expected from such a large and fragmented channel, convenience stores offer a wide range of fresh and prepared foods and beverages that reflect ongoing changes in food culture: The industry and its suppliers are broadening their offerings to shoppers eager for innovative, fresh, portable, high-quality food and beverages. Our consumers saw sandwiches with ingredients that answer consumer demand for higher-quality culinary experiences (e.g., spicy chorizo and smoked Gouda on ciabatta), as well as interesting, portable snacks/mini-meals (e.g., sliced prosciutto and provolone with taralli bread/crackers in a sealed plastic container). 

They also found many convenience stores stuck in the distant past, from independent operators offering steamed hot dogs, beer and week-old, shrink-wrapped tuna sandwiches to regional chains built on a dated NASCAR-style décor and shopping experience. These minimally or garishly decorated formats are out of step with shoppers seeking higher-quality food and shopping experiences. They offer little besides utilitarian salted snacks, chilled beverages, coffee and unappealing foods such as microwaveable sandwiches (e.g., foil-wrapped hamburgers of unknown age). Our shoppers frequently said, “That’s something I’d eat only in an emergency.” 

Our audit found independent convenience stores offer the widest range of truly unique fresh food and beverage experiences, ranging from minimalist to gourmet. Typified by the lone gas station with a limited food-and-beverage selection, they are the most likely convenience stores to offer what we dubbed an “altar to fresh”: Very small refrigerated sections which, despite their size, carry interesting choices, from pre-made breakfast or lunch sandwiches (typically made by local suppliers) to yogurt, cut or whole fruit, single-serve cheese, hard-boiled eggs and pre-packed salads.

Download Free White Paper


Consumer Package Goods Culture Retail/Shopper Insights Trends


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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