Convenience stores are going fresh and healthy but not quickly enough for consumers, a new research report suggests.

In recent years, convenience stores have been a growing outlet for produce, especially for grab-and-go fruit and vegetable options. Consumers, however, say they’re looking for more healthy food options when they’re buzzing c-store shelves.

Consumers looking for fresh and healthy at c-stores

Courtesy Technomic Inc.

7-Eleven's Fresh to Go salads are one example of how fresh and healthy food options are becoming more important for convenience stores.

More than half, 52%, of consumers polled for foodservice research and consulting company Technomic Inc.’s Convenience Store Foodservice Consumer Trend Report said they would like to see more healthy food items in the stores. Only 28% said they were satisfied with the healthy options.

The focus on freshness is driven by increased competition between c-stores and restaurants, particularly in fast food, said Kelly Weikel, consumer research manager. Trade down restaurant spending paired with falling revenures for other c-store categories, like gasoline and tobacco, has made foodservice one of the most profitable areas for c-stores, she said.

“In order to capitalize on this, and compete with restaurants, c-stores need to convince consumers that they are a viable foodservice option by offering freshly prepared foods and made-to-order options that consumers associate with restaurants,” Weikel said.

According to Technomic, more than half of consumers purchase a food or beverage at convenience stores each week. Another 10% are visiting c-stores, but not purchasing food or drinks.

It’s going to take high quality food and a strong value proposition to translate that traffic into foodservice purchases, according to the report. Forty-one percent of consumers said they would be encouraged to purchase foodservice items at convenience stores more frequently if there were high-quality food items available. Healthier options were also near the top of the list, with 36% saying healthier options would encourage them to purchase food at c-stores more often.

“The market is battling competition from restaurants, which most consumers perceive to offer options that are higher in quality than those menued at most convenience stores,” the report reads.

When asked about factors that were important in deciding to make a food or drink purchase, however, health fell lower on the list. Still, 51% of consumers said health was either important or very important. To contrast that, 85% of consumers said taste was important or very important, and 84% reported similarly for freshness.

Although fresh, healthy fruit and vegetable items are more closely associated with other retail or restaurant sectors, consumer viewpoints are shifting, according to the report.

“Promoting freshness is also an effective strategy because it goes hand-in-hand with several other attributes that are important to the purchasing decision, including taste, quality and health,” Weikel said.

Prepared sandwiches, salads, beverages and hot foods were among the most appealing c-store items, according to the report.

“Fruits and vegetables are increasingly on offer as well,” the report reads. “Fresh-cut fruit and vegetable snacks packaged and sold as grab-and-go options are much more commonplace today than ever before.”

Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz backs up its lineup of sandwiches, entree salads, soups, wraps, burgers, fajitas and more with signage that reads, “Fresh food, made to order.” Dallas -based 7-Eleven has its own private-label Fresh to Go salad line and introduces at least 20 new meal offerings in stores each week, according to the report.

Still, only 25% of consumers reported purchasing fruit for breakfast at a convenience store at least once every three months, while 60% reported purchasing donuts. One-third purchased a made-to-order sandwich or wrap in the same time frame, while more than half had purchased a hot dog.

The report took into account responses from more than 1,500 U.S. consumers surveyed during July and data from its MenuMonitor database of menu items at foodservice outlets across the U.S.

This was Technomic’s first c-store trend report, but the company has a C-Store Insights Group and has done an industry report on leading convenience stores, said Sara Monnette, director of consumer research.