The final piece in our three-part series on obesity. Nora Blascsok, Communications and Web Officer, and Dr Rosalind Sharpe, Research Fellow and Project Lead at the Food Research Collaboration, explain their work looking into how to encourage healthier food retail environments.

Imagine your house is miles away from the nearest supermarket and you are unable to drive there or take the bus. You can’t afford petrol or are too frail or anxious to use public transport. Where do you go to get your shopping done? Or, what for many of us is a regular occurrence, imagine that you find yourself with an empty fridge on a Sunday night and all the supermarkets have closed. 

Convenience stores are at the heart of many communities in the UK and often they are the only option within walking distance. However, they are not known for providing a great range of healthy food options.

Driving progress on sustainable and healthy food at the local level is an important area of work for the Food Research Collaboration. We also recognise that unequal access to healthy and sustainable options is a decisive factor, and we advocate an inclusive approach to food policy. We collaborate with academics and civil society groups, to produce evidence-based guidance for practitioners working on the ground. 

Food retail environments, the places we shop for our food, have been shown to have an important influence on our diets. We need to make sure that everyone has access to healthy options, but how do we make the case to convenience store owners that stocking and promoting healthier foods and snacks is worth their while?

In 2018 we interviewed convenience store owners and public health practitioners involved in three different healthy eating initiatives targeting convenience stores (two in London, one in Scotland) to find out what works when it comes to getting convenience store owners engaged in healthy food provision.

It is important to understand that convenience stores exist in a very competitive environment and many have gone out of business over the last few years. People who run them are short of time and money, working in unstable conditions. Initiatives that want to be successful, have to make sure that they make the business case to participating stores: there has to be something in it for them.

Sharing evidence from established programmes of sales growth and customer retention, for example, or highlighting ways convenience stores can have a competitive edge over supermarkets can motivate store owners to be involved. The need to align health goals with business goals is key.

Providing businesses with support and advice for free as part of the programme was considered a win-win scenario. Some were given free merchandising kits to promote healthy products, and advice on how to increase their sales was appreciated. Minimising the work for the shop owner and keeping things simple were important in ensuring engagement.

Building links with their community was also regarded a business benefit. They were able to attract new customers as well as keep existing ones close to home. The programmes were often seen to have contributed to changing the reputation of these shops.

There is little information out there on successful engagement with convenience store operators on healthier food provision. We hope our research fills this hole and can help practitioners be more effective. You can read about our research including our detailed recommendations on our website.

This project was undertaken by researchers at the Food Research Collaboration, an initiative of the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London.