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On-the-Go and On-Trend: How to Keep Up with the Evolving C-Store

Insights & Innovation |  2.27.2019

For many consumers, convenience stores have provided food and beverage essentials when they’re in a pinch or on the run. And they’ve come a long way from the early days of basics like eggs and milk. Today’s convenience stores have everything from prepared sandwiches, salads, and fresh fruits to candy bars, salty snacks, and even the latest electronic accessories. At Aramark, our c-stores have also evolved as we continue to uncover new ways to satisfy consumer needs. Over the years, our chief learning has been that adaptability is key. Consumer desires are constantly changing and our stores must be able to shift what they offer to match. 

By working closely with our store managers, product manufacturers, and other partners, we’re able to put the products that consumers are looking for on the shelves, ultimately improving overall satisfaction and driving increased sales. To learn more about what goes into planning an on-trend successful c-store, we spoke with April Russell, Brand Manager of Convenience Retailing at Aramark. Russell works in tandem with the c-store teams at our sites to ensure they have the tools and resources they need to effectively and efficiently run their store. The goal is to put standard processes and procedures in place that help alleviate some of the pressure on managers so they’re able to focus on what they do best: serving their consumers. 

The Top 3 Things Every C-Store Operator Should Keep in Mind

  1. Freshness. While hot dogs from a roller grill certainly have their place in some c-stores, we continue to find that these “fresh and ready” items are no longer cutting it for consumers who are looking past traditional convenience store items and have elevated expectations. In fact, recent studies show that nearly 85% of consumers believe that it is at least somewhat important that c-stores offer “fresh” snacks. “Even if you have limited space, it's important that each store features some type of healthy option, even if it is something as simple as fruit,” states Russell. Offering a variety of freshly prepared items, such as kale and arugula salads, sandwiches, and parfaits, can surprise and delight your guests as well. If you don’t have the facilities to prepare these items on-site, Russell notes that daily delivery from local produce companies or third-party suppliers can help you fill this need.
  2. Smaller portion sizes. Gone are the days of eating three square meals per day. Our research has shown that today’s consumers are more apt to have five to eight smaller meals or snacks throughout the day. “It’s not just for the health benefit. People are moving away from full meals and eating smaller portions,” explains Russell. “Because of this trend, it is extremely important that smaller or re-sealable options as well as single-serve items are available. Consumers are simply looking for something that is small, easy to eat, and will give them the sustained fuel they need for the next few hours until they're hungry again.” When thinking about what options to put out at the lunch hour, for example, you should keep this in mind.
  3. Portability. We know our consumers have hectic schedules and look to c-stores as a place where they can quickly and conveniently grab something to eat or drink. Because of this, the availability of “Grab-and-Go” items that can be easily consumed while on the run is critical. “Anything that’s a fully functional, portable product is going to make it easier for the consumer as they head to their next class or meeting,” explains Russell.

In addition to making sure that the right products are available, it is also critical to ensure that these products are properly merchandised throughout the space.

The Importance of Planning

When it comes to the layout of each store, everything from the types of shelving to the types of products that go on them and how those products will be arranged is meticulously planned out ahead of time. The two biggest components in making this happen are merchandising plans and plan-o-grams, which are essentially visual representations of the products that should be on display in a particular area.

Each individual store has its own merchandising plan, which starts with laying out the fixtures, such as cabinetry and shelving, and any equipment that will be implemented. Then, product categories such as “single-serve breakfast” or “functional energy bars” are assigned to each fixture or piece of equipment. Our team ensures the right products are placed together as well as in the most optimal location in the store. For example, knowing that consumers typically pair a breakfast item with a hot beverage such as coffee, we place these categories close to each other. Whenever possible, the freshly prepared or grab-and-go items are placed near the front of the store, so they are easily accessible by consumers.

Healthier C-Store groceries

Fresh produce takes center stage with its own display near the entrance.

We continually adjust our product offerings to meet the needs of our end consumer or client. For example, at higher education stores that are visited most frequently by students that live on campus, you’ll see grocery sets that have condiments, boxes of pasta, canned vegetables and other items they can take back to their dorm rooms. Overall, the main purpose of these merchandising plans, Russell explains, is “to help managers determine where products should be placed within their store and help them identify if any product categories are missing.”

In addition, every single product category that is placed within a store has a dedicated plan-o-gram. “These plan-o-grams are designed so that if you're a c-store manager, you're able to simply take a look at the plan-o-gram and determine exactly what products need to be on the shelves,” notes Russell. 

Healthier C-Store groceries

Every single product in this store is arranged according to a plan-o-gram.

In some cases, a client will want to do something special or unique at their location. “Our approach is never cookie cutter,” assures Russell. She gives the example of one client who designed the entire space themselves, resulting in atypical shelving. The shelves still offered the top-selling products but were simply laid out differently. “We work with the client to help design a space that fits their environment, because at the end of the day we're guests within their facilities. We need to be able to provide them what they need,” says Russell. 

Uncovering Opportunities with Our Partners

Choosing which of the thousands of consumer-packaged goods to offer is an important part of our process. To make the right decisions, we continuously analyze multiple data sources including IRI, Nielsen, SPINS and our own proprietary sales data. As members of the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), we’re able to gather a lot of information from the data they publish and by attending their trade shows to learn about the latest trends. 

In addition, we also work with our various manufacturer partners to gather and understand any additional data that is specific to the c-store or grocery channel. “If we're looking at the bar category (health, meal replacement, energy, granola, etc.), for example, we can reach out to our key partners within that category to obtain reports that shows the top performing brands and SKUs (stock-keeping units).” On a regular basis, we also have business reviews with key strategic manufacturing partners. “During these meetings, we review products that are new or trending in a particular category so we can determine whether it's something we want to test in our locations,” she explains. “Sometimes it's a no brainer, so we go ahead and make that product available.” Other times, it requires a bit more research to understand how our consumers will respond to it within our locations. When that is the case, we will test the product in a set of our stores and measure the results in order to better understand how to move forward with the product. In addition to uncovering new and innovative items, we work with our partners to ensure we are offering their top-performing items and if they’ve discontinued any products that we need to remove from our plan-o-grams.

Capitalizing on Trends 

Ultimately, meeting consumer demands means continually evolving our stores. For example, bottled beverages—a staple in c-stores for decades—have hit a new stride as consumers look to try the next kombucha or cold brew. In addition, more exotic ingredients like wild rice and quinoa are replacing pasta and white rice on shelves, indicating that consumers are looking to try new things. One of the most prominent shifts as of late has been consumers’ adoption of healthier lifestyles. “What we've really been seeing is an increased desire for products that deliver functional benefits,” notes Russell, “It's no longer: ‘Oh, I want a soda;’ it’s: ‘Let's have the kombucha because it tastes great and has a probiotic in it.’” This shift in consumer behavior can be seen across all locations, with healthcare and higher education leading the charge. 

Healthier C-Store groceries

Bottled water is front and center as consumers shift toward healthier, on-the-go choices.

To meet this need, a lot of manufacturers have been evolving their products to make them healthier. In some cases, we’re able to offer the same products we’ve always had, but it now has additional ingredients that make the product even better for you. “One example is Del Monte fruit cups, which now offer peaches with chia seeds and pears with oatmeal,” says Russell. 

Gathering feedback helps us keep a finger on the pulse of ever-changing consumer needs. At Aramark, we can leverage our proprietary consumer feedback tool, Voice of the Consumer. With this tool, we can get continuous, real-time feedback about our services and offerings. In addition, we maintain a consumer research panel with 100,000+ members which enables us to conduct in-house consumer research directly with our customers. Most recently, we’ve seen an increase in demand for plant-forward options. Dairy-free products continue to grow in popularity as well. “We’ve seen a big increase in plant-based dairy such as cashew milks and yogurts made of cashew or almonds,” Russell notes. “These items are gaining in popularity even amongst people who don’t have an allergy or lactose intolerance because the flavor profiles of these items have improved since they first came out.”

When selecting specific products for a store, we make it clear to our clients that it’s always an informed decision. As Russell puts it, “Our clients trust us because we base our decisions on the research and information provided through our vendors, what we hear from our customers, and what we're hearing from our managers.”

As we move into this new era, we’ll continue to use data and trends to inform the evolution of our c-stores to match consumer needs. Sometimes, this will mean expanding into new categories that may not even exist today. At the end of the day, adaptability is critical when it comes to the world of convenience stores and will be key being successful and relevant in the future.

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