7-Eleven goes healthy

Stephanie Strom / New York Times News Service /


Published Dec 26, 2012 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

The chain that is home of the Slurpee, Big Gulp, and self-serve nachos with chili and cheese is betting that consumers will stop in for yogurt parfaits, crudite and lean turkey on whole wheat bread.

7-Eleven, the convenience store chain, is restocking its shelves with an eye toward health. Over the last year, the retailer has introduced a line of fresh foods for the calorie- conscious and trimmed down its more indulgent fare by creating portion-size items.

The change is as much about consumers’ expanding waistlines as the company’s bottom line. By 2015, the retailer aims to have 20 percent of sales come from fresh foods in its U.S. and Canadian stores, up from about 10 percent currently, according to a company spokesman.

“We’re aspiring to be more of a food and beverage company, and that aligns with what the consumer now wants, which is more tasty, healthy, fresh-food choices,” said Joseph DePinto, the chief executive of 7-Eleven, a subsidiary of the Japanese company Seven & i Holdings.

Convenience stores have typically been among the most nimble of retailers. In the 1980s, they added Pac-Man arcade games as a way to keep customers in stores longer and to buy more merchandise. They installed ATMs a decade later, taking a slice of the transaction fees. More recently, they built refrigerated dairy cases, with milk, eggs, cheese and other staples.

But just as they have taken business from traditional supermarkets, convenience stores have faced increased competition from the likes of Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, which offer a basic menu of fresh foods for consumers on the go. At the same time, a major profit driver for convenience stores — cigarettes — has been in steady decline over the last decade as the rate of smoking has dropped in the United States.

Fresh foods can help offset some of those losses. The markup on such merchandise can be significant, bolstering a store’s overall profits. It’s also a fast-growing category.

“If you can figure out how to deliver consistent quality and the products consumers want, fresh food is attractive because margins are higher, and it addresses some of the competitive issues you’re facing,” said Richard Meyer, a longtime consultant for the convenience store industry. “But it’s not easy to do.”

As 7-Eleven refocuses its lineup, the retail chain has assembled a team of culinary and food science experts to study industry trends and develop new products. Such groups have been around for a while at fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s and packaged-goods manufacturers like Kraft. But it’s a relatively new concept for players like 7-Eleven, which have typically relied on their suppliers to provide product innovation.

“We’re working to create a portfolio of fresh foods,” said Anne Readhimer, senior director of fresh food innovation, who joined the company in May from Yum! Brands, where she had worked on the KFC and Pizza Hut brands. “Some will be for snacking, some for a quick meal, but we hope everything we offer our guests is convenient and tasty.”