Convenience stores are on your street, around the corner or down the block. Every day more than a million Canadians walk through the front doors of a neighbourhood quick service retailer. It’s no wonder then that when community organizations concerned with food challenges went looking for a way to combat limited access to healthy foods they looked no further than local c-stores and dépanneurs.
One such organization is Carrefour alimentaire Centre-Sud, a group that brings together two complementary organizations: Marché Solidaire Frontenac and Rencontres Cuisines. Together, these organizations are working to improve access to healthy food for all and support the development of a local food system, ecological and solidarity. Today they have over 150 active members who distribute fruit and vegetables in their neighbourhoods with programs that offer ‘Farmer Boxes’ of random seasonal produce direct from the grower.
Now groups such as Carrefour that have positive nutrition goals, have the backing of Montreal’s Health Department that launched Projet Dépanneur Fraîcheur about a year ago. The idea is to create oasis amid the inner city ‘food deserts’ that appear when grocery retail is not present. Altogether Montreal is home to more than 900 corner stores or ‘deps’, sites that are perfectly placed to provide not just tobacco and lottery, confectionary and beverages, but wholesome produce as well.
The inspiration behind the project comes from the City of Philadelphia where they have run the highly successful Healthy Foods Initiative for the past five years. The program was designed to get fresh fruits and veggies into the hands of inner city residents of whom many had no access to a proper grocery store.
According to Fabie Gauthier Carrière, Chargée de projet Regroupement montréalais des Dépanneurs Fraîcheurs, Projet Dépanneur Fraîcheur came after a market study revealed the extent to the food desert challenge in Montreal, especially among low-income residents. “In the US they are working in plenty of cities to offer fruits and vegetables at low prices at the corner store level to increase access. It has been a very great success and now we have four cities here in Canada doing the same types of thing,” she says, pointing to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. [Check out CCentral.ca and YCM May 2016 for a story on Toronto’s experience] “Our objective in Centre Sud is to sell directly to the corner stores and distribute at cost in order to test the market,” says Fabie.
The group made their first distribution last September (2015). “One year is not enough time to change food habits, but it is a good start that is beginning to show positive change.” Similar to the experience in Toronto, the stores are seeing interest, but solid traction is proving to be elusive. However, Fabie reports that stores are discovering that spoilage rates are only about 20%, a rate that is similar to that of grocery retail.
“Part of what we want to achieve is a change in how people look at Les Dépanneur. Maybe remove some of the beer ads and place veggies by the door for maximum visibility. We also would like to see a return to how small grocery/convenience used to be. As late as the 1970s small neighbourhood food retailers were responsible for much more distribution of nutritious products. It was where people shopped before the advent of the big box supermarkets that now have a commanding hold of food sales. By making more produce available in locations closer to home the hope is that attitudes will begin to change back and people will see the corner store as the place for apples and cabbage as well as a beer and candy. We know it will be a slow transformation, but if we are to combat health and social challenges caused by limited access to good quality food, the small c-store on the corner is a great place to start.”
Creating good will
On Montreal’s Fullum Street, operator Dong Li runs Dépanneur 7 Jour, a traditional Quebec convenience retail site that largely survives on sales of tobacco, beer and snack foods. One of the first retailers to get behind Projet Dépanneur Fraîcheur, Dong reports that he got involved to try something new at the store where customers drop by seven days a week between 9:00AM and 11:00PM. He now sells around ten SKUs of fresh fruit and vegetables that include onions, apples, bananas, potatoes and others items such as citrus and cabbage. “The selection has made my customers very happy. It’s made life easier for those who can’t walk all the way to the grocery store,” he says, remembering how surprised his regular customers were when he brought in the first offerings. “This is a dépanneur. We don’t normally sell fresh foods like produce.”
He reports that sales are slow for the items. “We might only sell a couple of bananas one day and a bag of potatoes the next, but for those that come in to buy it is important to obtain healthy foods close to home. This is why we do it. We are not really making more money or seeing more customers. We are making our regular customers happy and that is a good thing.
“We get the produce at a good price and it’s delivered. If something doesn’t sell it goes back. We have no risk so I’m okay with making space for the display. I think we also get secondary business when people buy one thing they often take something else as well. So, placement is important to make the most of the opportunity.”
According to Dong Li he has been pleased with the produce selections available. “We can’t sell all the items a grocer might, but we are able to offer many of the most popular. If a customer asks for an item like limes or cauliflower, I’ll try to bring it in. We are not trying to compete with the big stores, we only want to make our established customers more satisfied with their experience when they come to us.”
Five tips for produce sales
- Make the section visible. Dong Li merchandises his produce selections by the front door so customers can’t moss the display.
- Cross promote. Maximize the opportunity with cross promotion that captures secondary sales.
- Choose produce carefully. Pay attention to spoilage and keep the selections as appealing as possible.
- Spread the word. Let people know an onion or apple is as close as the neighbourhood corner store.
- Make it appealing. Invite customers to try with suggestive selling.