We've talked a lot about Millennial consumers and their preference for fast-and-fresh—or even fine dining—over traditional quick-service restaurants (QSRs) like McDonald's. And we've talked before about the trend toward snackification. What we haven't touched heavily on, though, is the fact that Millennials are savvy food shoppers.
Young adults today want quality ingredients and exotic food experiences, but they also want value. For every shared meal out with friends, a typical Millennial eats a bevy of cheap, small meals by him- or herself. And increasingly, it seems, they're turning to convenience stores to find them.
What Part Of The Convenience Store Food Aisle Screams "Artisan?"
Well, nothing, truth be told. But young adults in America have become highly adept at trading off. Exotic flavor palettes, organic ingredients, locally-sourced foods and gourmet toppings are desired, but Millennials face the hard realities of a tight job market—and mountains of college debt, to boot. You have to be able to pay for those experiences.
To that end, a lot of Millennials will substitute small, snackified meals on the go. They'll save on weekday food expenditures to save up for that big night out on Friday.
Where do these price-sensitive grocery shoppers go? Whole Foods? Nah, too expensive for a quick meal. Fast-and-fresh? Only if you have $10 or $15 to blow on a single meal. A $6 six-inch turkey sandwich at the convenience store-based Subway, while you're filling up your car's gas tank? Now you're talking.
Convenience Store And Fast-And-Fresh Food: Strange Bedfellows Grow Together.
According to a study released just this past February (2015) by research firm NPD Group, convenience store stops account for nearly double the food sale encounters with Millennial shoppers than those at fast-and-fresh outlets. Convenience store stops accounted for 11.1 percent of food-and-beverage purchases to Millennial consumers in 2014—up from 7.7 percent in 2006. But sales at fast-and-fresh restaurants grew, too, from 3.1 percent of sales to Millennials in 2006 to 6.1 percent in 2014.
All this, NPD noted, has placed two-sided pressure on QSR chains, which are getting squeezed on either end of the pricing spectrum.
The takeaway? Convenience store food sales aren't supplanting, or even undercutting, fast-and-fresh sales. They're complementing the fast-and-fresh market and supplying a critical, low-price niche that Millennials need. But is that a good thing?
Can We Make The Convenience Store Aisle Healthier?
OK, so Millennials are price-conscious. And that is in part driving snackification. But, as the fast-and-fresh trend on the other end of the price equation has keenly demonstrated, they're also deeply concerned with what they put into their bodies.
So can food companies find a way to marry the two? It seems as though there’s definitely a market for healthier, affordable snackified choices. But, as things stand, if consumers want to get a quick snack—vegan seitan jerky, for example—they must trek to the local health food store to satisfy their craving.
Developing healthier protein choices for on-the-go eaters can only help food companies.
One wonders, if Millennials account for so much trade at convenience stores, why the Ameristops, Thornton's and Shell Mini-Marts of the world haven't caught on. What gives?
We already know that the United States faces an acute shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables offerings in our urban core areas. Concurrently, many Millennials are eschewing the 'burbs in favor of city living.
Clearly, food companies and distributors need to work more closely with convenience stores and bodegas—especially in downtown areas—to develop more ways to get fresh produce to all those long-suffering city-dwelling grocery shoppers and newly-urbanized Millennials alike.
The snackification trend doesn't look to be slowing down any time soon. The smart play for food companies is to cash in now, developing new products that meet Millennials' demands for healthfulness, clean eating, convenience and value.