- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Love’s Travel Stops offers traditional convenience store items such as candy and bottled soft drinks. In 2012, however, the company started having its store managers buy, cut and package fresh fruit and vegetables to be sold in plastic cups.

“We go to trade shows and listen to our customers,” said Bryan Street, category manager over deli, fruit, fountain and roll grill. “We’re doing what (our customers) have been asking us to do by giving them fresh options.”

He said the convenience stores are limited on what fresh items they can offer because many have Subway restaurants next door, The Journal Record (https://bit.ly/1Ms9St7 ) reported.

Since the company started offering the fresh options, it has seen the fruit and vegetable cups and bananas outsell many popular items. Love’s has sold more cups and bananas than Bud Light beer, 16-ounce cups of coffee, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and even 20-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola.

“We’ve seen great success not only in the new stores, but in the existing stores,” Street said. “People as a whole want to be healthier. They want something fresh that doesn’t make them feel tired or make them feel bad.”

That’s what nutritionist Nancy Caldarola, an educational consultant to the National Association of Convenience Stores, has been teaching store owners and operators: People want healthy food.

She said she saw the fresh trend start in the mid-2000s with stores on the East Coast offering made-to-order sandwiches. She said she started pushing the idea of fresh items in 2010. The challenge was getting owners and operators to see there was profit in the change, since food products must be thrown away after a certain amount of time. Love’s fruit and vegetables have a three-day shelf span.

“You have to go through this whole process of trying to awake the (owner or operator),” she said. “It has to be the, ‘I discovered it myself.’ The opportunity for profitability is there in food if stores focus on what customers are buying, and they want fresh foods.”

She said there is as much as 20- to 30-percent profit in fresh fruits and vegetables, though that turnaround can vary by store and market area. In comparison, candy profitability can range from 9 percent to 100 percent.

Street said Love’s retains a high profit margin by cutting and packaging the fruit itself, rather than outsourcing the preparation or using another brand. He declined to give the exact profit margin because the company is privately held.

“With the prepackaged fruit, you don’t know what’s inside, what gas was used to package it,” Street said. “That’s a concern for our customer. They appreciate the fresh aspect.”

In Tulsa, QuikTrip spokesman Mike Thornbrugh said the company has been redesigning its stores with more space in the front for its fresh fruit offerings. The fruit is prepared regionally at a QuikTrip commissary and then transported to the stores. With the new store design, there are coolers on the floor, making it easier for customers to grab the snacks.

“We don’t think it’s a trend,” he said. “We think it’s a category that will continue to grow. We’re just not big on fads. It’s becoming more and more of a staple. We wouldn’t dedicate this much space if they didn’t sell.”

The company also expanded its tea options after it saw more customers looking for something healthier than soft drinks. Some QT stores offer as many as 10 different teas, he said.

“Tea is one of those places to pick up additional sales,” he said.

Caldarola said store design is important to fresh products’ successes. She said some store owners think it’s smart to put those items in the back cooler so people have to wander through the store to find it, but that works in just the opposite way.

“If the food is in front of the customer, they are going to buy it,” she said. “If it’s put in the back corner, they won’t think about it.”

Love’s has a fresh fruit and vegetable cooler that sits near the checkout counter. The entire cooler is wrapped with the same labeling as the fruit cups, bringing the customer’s attention to the items. More prepared items are available in the back cooler, but Street said future stores will have those offerings made more easily accessible.

“We’re looking at different layouts and designs that include a drop-in cooler directly in the roller grill counter,” he said.

Caldarola said fresh fruits and vegetables are just the beginning of millennial-driven changes coming to convenience stores. She said local and sustainable items will be on shelves soon, too.

“It is a restaurant movement, and I think c-stores will pick it up,” she said.

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Information from: The Journal Record, https://www.journalrecord.com


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