York convenience stores follow healthy-fare trend

Jana Benscoter

Gone are the days when convenience stores offered little more than stale hot dogs under a heat lamp, a six pack and a pack of smokes.

Convenience stores — referred to as "C-stores" by the marketing gurus — are trying to compete with tony fast-casual eateries, such as Panera Bread and Starbucks, local managers say.

And locals seem open to the idea. York Haven resident Ron Matulonis is watching his weight, and his self-discipline has paid off: The 42-year-old said he's lost 22 pounds.

Shifts in convenience store shopping are changing how retailers like Rutter's are stocking their stores. A trend in healthy eating is leading to more fresh foods on the shelves. Wednesday, May 10, 2017.  John A. Pavoncello photo

On Monday, he dropped by the Sheetz convenience store on Carlisle Road for lunch because the chain's offerings are "a little healthier" than McDonald’s, which "hasn't been helpful at all" for his diet, he said.

Matulonis is among a growing number of customers looking for "convenient health," according to Travis Sheetz, the Altoona-based chain’s vice president of operations. Sheetz said he has seen an uptick in sales from the chain's cold cases, where yogurts, cut fruit and other pre-packaged foods are sold.

Convenience stores still have some evolving to do before they become the ultimate go-to for healthy food. But as cigarette sales decline, their fast-food market is on the upswing. And some chains are looking to capitalize on the trend for healthier fare, as well. Still, prepared foods are the typical go-to.

Pepsico employee Ron Matulonis said he prefers Sheetz over McDonald's for its healthier food selection. Jana Benscoter/photo

Evolution: Cigarettes remain the top seller at convenience stores but are generally on the decline, the National Association of Convenience Stores said in an April report. Drinks and prepared foods such as pizzas and burgers accounted for 22 percent of convenience-store sales last year, the association said, a spike from 13 percent in 2010.

The trend is part of an all-inclusive, on-the-go shift at convenience stores — which in York County, includes Turkey Hill, Royal Farms, Rutter’s and Sheetz — that is based on what consumers want, according to the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing's research.

York County Rutter's, Sheetz to sell beer

Gone are the days when motorists had to make more than one stop to meet their needs. Commuters now can buy their coffee, carrots, fried chicken, ribs, soda and yogurt, as well as fill up their gas tanks, at the ubiquitous convenience store — emphasis on "convenience."

Many of the big chains have implemented touch-screen innovation and drive-through pick up within the past two to three decades, which has made them more competitive with fast-food chains, smaller restaurant chains and supermarkets that offer prepared foods for busy shoppers.

Sheetz, which has more than 540 locations in six states, said half of its new locations are built with a drive-through, an accommodation the fast-food industry relies on for the majority of its sales. While Sheetz customers use the drive-through lanes mainly to order from the chain’s menu of made-to-order foods such as burgers, the company says, they also can request such items as a gallon of milk from elsewhere in the store if they want.

Healthy options: The association reported that many people in rural areas who might not be near supermarkets often get their groceries from convenience stores.

Kevin Alvarnaz, director of community health and wellness at WellSpan Health, said part of a regional plan that he’s working on with York City stakeholders is to increase opportunities of locally grown food in city convenience stores, following suit with what convenience chains are doing.

“We’re trying to create partnerships within the community to offer fresh produce in corner stores,” Alvarnaz said. “... York City is a food desert.”

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Alvarnaz was referring to the fact that supermarkets have left the city, and convenience-store chains are typically outside the city, as well. Having a store such as Rutter’s or Sheetz in the city, or helping corner stores to develop relationships with local growers, he said, would be part of a solution to having access to healthier foods.

Marketing: “C-stores are well-positioned as the grab-and-go culture continues to grow,” Gavin Advertising CEO Mandy Arnold said. “Add to that how consumers are trending more toward healthy, homemade and sustainable options, and C-stores are seeing a true market opportunity.”

Arnold said location plays a large part in how convenience stores market to their immediate community. For example, she said, “being located near a college might highly influence the foods you stock and even when you stock it. A gas station on the interstate uses a totally different strategy.”

Mobile advertising; geo-fencing, which tracks a mobile user’s location and enables advertising companies to tag smartphones with targeted messages to consumers; and app-integrated advertising also are being used to reach customers based on their location, search habits and general behavior, Arnold said.

“For instance, if someone is using their mobile device to seek out food locations and asks for “salads near me,” we can serve up ads for a C-store nearby to promote that they have just what the customer is looking for,” she said.

The healthier transition, Arnold said, is one she personally likes because she's "constantly on the go" and doesn't "like to eat fast food."

“I’m coming home from the gym or a meeting and need a little something, I know I can now go to Rutter’s and grab a Bolthouse or Naked Juice, a yogurt or even cooked eggs or a nut and cheese snack,” she said. “Years ago, I didn’t think I’d ever consider going to a C-store over a supermarket. But supermarkets stress me out. I’m the new profile they speak of — shopping only the perimeter, in and out.”

Economics: Cigarette and food consumers are two entirely different groups, Rutter's Chief Customer Officer Derek Gaskins said.

Profits from both groups are something executives take into account as they consider creating new jobs, launching new innovations and accommodating customers with any changing market trends.

A new market trend that hasn't been taken into account yet: Several local Rutter's and Sheetz now are selling beer and wine. Overall profit gain from beer and wine sales was reportedly minimal, according to the association's report, due to them being relatively newly legal to sell at convenience stores in Pennsylvania.

Lisa Allen of York selects an "adult libation" from the single serve beer cooler at Rutter's on Richland Ave., Wednesday, May 10, 2017.  Shifts in convenience store shopping are changing how retailers like Rutter's are stocking their stores. Changes in PA liquor laws allowing beer and wine sales are opening new markets to the traditional cigarette and gas chains.   John A. Pavoncello photo

Offering a greater selection of food is not based on the downward cigarette sales trend, Gaskins added, which he said has been an ongoing trend for more than 10 years. Serving food that consumers want has been at the heart of their operations for more than 30 years.

“We’re looking at being an alternative to fast casual,” Gaskins said. “We’re not trying to be as competitive with Taco Bell and McDonald’s as we are with Chipotle, Panera, Starbucks, Red Robin and even Smokey Bones.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.