Convenience stores like GetGo, Sheetz try to sell healthier foods
April 19, 2017 12:00 AM
Snacks and beverages from the Market District sit near the cashier at the GetGo in Verona.
People check out items at the GetGo in Verona.
The dinning area at the GetGo in Verona.
A selection of wines and beer are available at the GetGo in Verona.
By Stephanie Ritenbaugh / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Those of a certain age can remember when stopping inside a convenience store after filling the tank meant food choices limited to Twinkies, pretzels and pop while being enveloped in the smell of scorched coffee and hot dogs.
Now, shoppers have more options, as gas stations like Giant Eagle’s GetGo, Sheetz and 7-Eleven have begun offering healthier options beyond chips and cigarettes. Maybe a freshly made smoothie or something from the espresso bar.
GetGo, the fuel station for O’Hara-based grocer Giant Eagle, has fully embraced the trend with its newest location in Verona. The company razed an older, smaller building and built a larger store that opened in November. Now, the store is using Market District chefs to enhance its food offerings.
That includes fresh fruit and vegetables in to-go containers, prepared meals, salads, sandwiches and items that can be made to order.
The Verona location is the first in the Pittsburgh region with those offerings, though the company has also introduced the new format in other areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, according to Polly Flinn, senior vice president and general manager for GetGo.
“We chose Verona for this because we already had an established store, so we knew there was a customer base doing significant fuel volume,” Ms. Flinn said. “We have doubled the fuel volume and quintupled the store business.”
Commuters can still find convenience store staples — fountain drinks, candy bars and other snacks — but those items are taking up less shelf space compared to brewed iced tea and other non-carbonated beverages. Or a space to make your own milkshakes.
It’s also one of 18 GetGo sites to offer beer and wine.
While the price of gasoline may catch the eye of passing drivers, more are seeking out fueling locations based on the quality of the food, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Convenience Stores, based in Alexandria, Va.
“One in seven drivers [16 percent] say that the in-store offer is driving their fueling decision, a 5-point increase since 2015,” according to the association.
“While retailers know they need to aggressively compete on gas prices — 67 percent of Americans say they will drive 5 minutes out of their way to save 5 cents per gallon — it also shows that there are other ways to compete for customers with a quality in-store offer,” NACS spokesman Jeff Lenard said.
One trend driving that change is that more U.S. households — about 28 percent — are made up of people who are single, Mr. Lenard said.
“If you’re single, there’s not a great appeal to cook for an hour to eat by yourself or go out to a restaurant with the dreaded ‘Party of One,’” he noted. “Whether fast casual, ‘groceraunts,’ or convenience stores, these are emerging as something for them that’s quick, healthy, easy.”
Mr. Lenard cited a $3.3 billion deal struck this month when 7-Eleven bought 1,110 convenience stores from Sunoco. 7-Eleven, headquartered outside Dallas, also bought the trademarks of the Laredo Taco Co. and Stripes.
“The Sunoco deal is as much about food as it is about fuel,” Mr. Lenard said. “It allows 7-Eleven to do something with Laredo Taco.”
Competition for convenience stores isn’t just from other mini-marts. They’re also competing against places like Burger King and Panera Bread.
“When people shop at a convenience store, they’re looking for something immediately consumable. 7-Eleven introduced the microwave in store in the early 1970s. It’s almost too slow for a lot of people now,” Mr. Lenard said. “People will spend a few minutes waiting for something to be prepared, but there’s the open-air cooler in the middle. That grab-and-go cooler is driving a lot of sales.
“So the good news for convenience stores is that convenience has never been more important. The bad news is that everyone is trying to add that as well.”
For Giant Eagle, expanding GetGo allows it to bring in more of the company’s grocery and Market District strengths to the convenience store. It can sell its own brands, like Nature’s Basket, and use its own food products and chefs from Market District.
The company plans to open other sites, but did not disclose which locations are in the running.
“Breakfast and lunch are strong, but after-hours is becoming significant as people’s schedules become more variable,” Ms. Flinn said. “The kitchen is always open. And if you’re picking up your kid after practice at 10 p.m., you can find a place that’s open.”
Stephanie Ritenbaugh: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-4910.
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