This page provides brief answers to 20 frequently asked questions about healthy corner stores.
The same information is also available in a downloadable PDF (10 pages).
The Resources section of this website lists documents and links that provide additional information on some of these topics.
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A corner store is typically defined as a small-scale store that sells a limited selection of foods and other products. Organizations that work with corner stores sometimes develop definitions that include additional criteria based on the store size, number of aisles, and/or number of cash registers. In practice, the term ‘corner store’ encompasses a diverse range of small stores—both independent and chain stores; in rural, urban, and suburban settings; and not always located on a corner. Other terms that are commonly used to refer to this type of store include: small-scale store, convenience store, neighborhood store, and bodega.
The Healthy Corner Stores Network (HCSN) has not developed an ‘official’ definition of a healthy corner store, and network participants use a range of criteria in their projects. Some organizations have developed specific standards that stores must meet in order to earn some type of healthy corner store designation. These standards typically include requirements to stock certain types of items (such as whole grain bread, low-fat milk, or fresh produce) and/or a minimum number of healthy items (such as six types of fresh produce). In Hartford, standards for “Healthy Food Retailers” are based on the percentage of shelf space dedicated to healthy foods, and increasing that percentage each year. In New York City, the health department has developed standards for three levels of “Star Bodegas,” which also creates incentives for stores to make ongoing improvements.
Some healthy corner store standards require stores to actively promote healthy foods, or to restrict or eliminate ads for tobacco and alcohol. Some require stores to follow relevant laws and codes, including health and environmental standards. In general, existing healthy corner store standards are fairly modest, reflecting the current reality that most corner stores sell primarily unhealthy items. HCSN has not identified any established healthy corner store programs that require stores to sell exclusively healthy items to participate.
Corner stores and healthy foods
While the majority of products sold in corner stores today are unhealthy, it hasn’t always been that way. Until the 1960s, many neighborhoods had small-scale stores that sold primarily healthy foods and other necessities. The shift to current patterns of large supermarkets in wealthier areas and very small stores with primarily unhealthy items in low-income areas is due to various social and economic trends. These include middle class flight from urban areas, economic development patterns that favored suburbs over urban cores, and aggressive promotion of unhealthy items by manufacturers.
Grocery industry changes also played a major role. A trend toward very large supermarkets made it hard to find new store sites in urban areas; and increased control of the grocery supply chain by a few large companies eliminated many grocery distributors that once served smaller stores.
In addition to these broader trends, corner store owners tend to favor items that are easy for them to order, stock, and sell, which are primarily unhealthy items with a long shelf life. Alcohol and tobacco products are very easy to stock, have high profit margins, and are distributed almost everywhere. In contrast, it can be hard for small-scale stores to identify distributors that sell healthy foods, and stores that want to place a small order may have trouble meeting distributors’ minimum order requirements or getting decent prices. Stocking perishable items also requires more labor and skills, and carries more risk of losses. And too often, there is a vicious cycle in which distributors and/or store owners assume that their customers are not interested in buying healthy food and residents don’t expect to find healthy items at the corner store.
Most people want to be able to shop at a full-service grocery store, and attracting this type of store can be a powerful way to increase access to healthy foods. However, it also is a challenging, multi-year process that involves conducting market research, identifying an appropriate site, securing financing, dealing with permits and regulations, and other complex steps. In addition, assumptions about the challenges of operating in low-income communities and under-estimates of spending power in these areas create additional barriers to supermarket development. Local and state governments and community organizations can play important roles in helping retailers address these obstacles, recognize the opportunities, and operate successfully in underserved communities.
At the same time, there are a wide range of food retail formats that can help meet a community’s food needs, and it’s important to assess which are best for a given situation. Many communities have an existing base of corner stores where residents already shop, so working with these corner stores can be one effective strategy for using the available infrastructure to improve access to healthy foods. It’s generally easier to approach owners of small-scale stores, and to make significant changes in these stores with a modest investment of resources. Still, corner store initiatives have their limits, and it’s valuable to consider them within a broader strategy to improve the food environment (see #20), which may include a plan to attract a larger grocery store.
Corner stores have small square footage with limited shelving and refrigeration, which can make it hard for them to expand their inventory or stock perishable items. Many store owners do not have the time or resources to invest in store upgrades, and are not aware of financing options or how to apply for grants or loans. Additionally, many corner stores are cash-based businesses that use very basic accounting, bookkeeping, and inventory management systems. They may not be able to provide the detailed sales or inventory information that lending institutions require to underwrite financing requests. Language and cultural barriers also can make it difficult for store owners to access existing resources.
Many store owners are not used to selling fresh produce or other perishable items, and lack the skills and knowledge to do this well. They may not know how to buy, price, handle, or market these items, and may not be aware of all the distribution options available to them. Corner stores also do not have the same buying power as larger stores, which can make it hard for them to meet distributors’ minimum order requirements or receive good prices. Additionally, changing product mix is risky, and store owners may believe that their inventory reflects customer demand and that healthier products will not be profitable for them. Finally, corner stores generally have limited capacity to publicize changes in their stores.
Corner stores are businesses and need to make money in order to survive, so it’s important to ‘speak their language’ and communicate how they can make money by selling healthy foods. Documenting unmet demand for healthy food items and which items neighbors want to buy is very persuasive, especially if this is backed up by customers requesting and then buying the healthy items. Providing samples of food products for store owners to see, taste, and touch also may build their interest.
Sharing information about the potential returns from selling fresh, healthy products also can be compelling. Profit margins on dairy, bread, meat, and fresh produce often range from 25% to 50% or more. The profit margin for value-added fresh products like cut fruits or salads can be more than 100%. However, it’s important that store operators understand the extra skill, effort, and infrastructure required to realize these potential profits, and consider the option of starting out with some less perishable healthy items (see #7 and #8).
Many store owners care about their neighbors’ health and the community. They may be interested in carrying more healthy foods, but need some help making the transition. Informing them about training, resources, and support available can make a big difference. Providing examples of similar stores in the area that are selling healthy items successfully also can be persuasive. Lastly, if store owners are not native English speakers, it’s helpful to approach them and provide materials in their native language.
Stores can make money selling healthy foods, but the results vary greatly. As noted under #6, selling fresh and healthy items can be highly profitable. However, to realize the potential returns, stores need to sell enough volume of these foods, and sell them quickly if they are perishable. This can be hard to do if stores have a minimal selection of items, poor displays, and/or low quality due to inappropriate storage or lack of culling, all of which can reduce customer confidence.
Corner stores are more likely to make money selling healthy foods when they are motivated to make positive changes and willing to invest some extra effort, and when they have a good relationship with the community. It also helps ensure success if they order products wholesale, start with a limited number of popular and/or less perishable items, market and promote the foods effectively, and receive some training and support—and when competition from other retailers is relatively limited. Also, some store owners will accept less profit on healthy items in order to bring people into the store or provide a service to the community.
The healthy foods that sell well at corner stores depend partly on the customers’ shopping patterns. If neighbors do limited cooking and/or have easy access to larger food stores, they are likely to make small purchases of ‘grab and go’ items like sandwiches, pre-cut fruit, or healthy snacks and drinks. However, if neighbors cook more of their own food, have limited access to larger stores, and/or want to purchase particular ethnic foods or specialty items, a broader variety of healthy food items can sell well, such as fresh produce, dry beans and grains, canned goods, eggs and dairy items, and whole-grain bread and tortillas.
Yes, but again the results vary greatly. While selling fresh produce can be highly profitable for small-scale stores, it also comes with additional risks and challenges because produce is perishable and requires particular handling and storage. This is very different from what most corner store owners are used to doing, and they need to be willing to make changes and invest additional effort to make it work. They also may need training in how to store, handle, and display fresh produce, and/or new equipment such as a cooler. And store owners need to be willing to cull produce and accept some initial losses in order to maintain the quality needed to build produce sales—something that can be very hard for store owners to do.
Corner store owners are more likely to succeed selling produce if they have appropriate equipment and infrastructure, start out with a reasonable number of items that will sell well, focus on somewhat less perishable items, and/or effectively promote the produce. Support organizations can help stores succeed by providing training, supplying coolers or other infrastructure (with clear terms for their use), and helping identify which foods customers want to buy. They also can link stores with produce distributors, provide initial inventory for free or a reduced price, help stock and cull the produce, and/or offer signage or promotion (see #9).
More information: Produce/Food Handling Tips
Roles for support organizations
Corner store owners are often stretched for time and money, and may be better able to make positive changes if they receive appropriate incentives and assistance. There are many types of support that local organizations can provide, and many types of groups that can play a role (including health, community development, neighborhood, community food, and youth groups).
Local organizations and agencies can help stores recognize the potential to sell healthy foods successfully, what it takes to do that, and what kinds of foods neighbors want to buy. They can help make physical improvements to stores by cleaning, painting, and setting up displays. They can help stock healthy items or cover part or all of the cost of initial orders. Local groups also can promote healthy foods through signage, advertising, store demos and tastings, community outreach, and/or media work. Additionally, local economic development and financial organizations may provide grants or loans for infrastructure or business development; and local firms and universities may offer free services to small businesses.
These types of support can help store owners successfully make the transition to selling healthier items, sometimes with a fairly modest investment of time and resources. However, it’s crucial to make good choices about which stores to support (see #12), and to balance support with accountability (see #13). Ideally, interventions should be designed to make the healthy changes self-sustaining. Lastly, in addition to helping individual stores, support organizations can advocate for broader policy and planning approaches to promote healthy stores and communities (see #17 and #20).
Residents are directly impacted by a lack of access to healthy foods in their communities, and have a vested interest in improving nearby corner stores. They can provide valuable input and assistance to corner store initiatives; indeed these efforts are much more likely to succeed if they have strong community support from the beginning.
Residents have a key role to play in demonstrating interest in healthy options. They can ask store owners to add healthy items or find out what products their neighbors would like to buy through community meetings or surveys. Community members also can help promote healthy items in stores by getting the word out to their neighbors, conducting taste tests or cooking demos, organizing health fairs or block parties, or playing a role in other support activities described under #9.
Youth can be great allies in changing the corner store environment. Many are regular customers, stopping by stores on their way to and from school. Youth may be interested in getting involved through school, after-school, or recreation center programs. They can assess their local food environment and discuss their perspectives on food access. They can serve as liaisons to the community or organize their peers to ask store owners to sell healthier items. Young people can help make changes in stores or develop marketing ideas. They can even grow produce in a local garden and then sell or donate it to corner stores. These experiences can build their skills and empower them to continue making positive changes in their communities.
Toolkits and Manuals
Assess the skills, resources, information, and relationships that you will need to work with corner stores, and organize a team that can provide these. Learn from those who have gone before, including corner store initiatives in other places, especially those with similar settings or types of projects. (The Healthy Corner Stores Network website is a good source for this information.) Consider hiring a consultant who has experience working with corner stores.
If your group is not already active in the target neighborhood, spend some time there getting to know the community. Find out what people’s hopes and concerns are, and which organizations are already working in the community and what they are doing. Share your ideas with these neighbors and groups, and explore what they think and how your ideas fit in with their efforts and goals (see #20). Consider who else should be involved, and what other organizations might have valuable expertise or resources to contribute to a corner store initiative.
Explore the stores’ relationship with the neighborhood and find out which stores are viewed as assets to the community, as outsiders who doesn’t care, or as magnets for negative activity. Visit stores to assess what they are selling, the physical condition of the stores, and how they relate to their customers. You also may want to map or collect information about corner store locations relative to schools, transit stops, large grocery stores, or other relevant features.
Choosing and working with stores
It’s important to gather some information before you approach store owners directly. If you don’t live in the neighborhood, take some time to get to know the community and the stores (see #11). This will give you valuable insights into which stores might be good candidates to work with and how to approach the owners.
The initial contact with store owners is key, and ideally should be made by someone who is already known and trusted by the owner and/or someone who has a similar cultural background. In this visit, it’s important to demonstrate knowledge of the community and interest in the store owner’s situation, and to clearly convey the potential benefits of selling healthier items and what type of support may be available to stores. However, don’t try to do too much—the initial meeting is primarily a chance to get a sense of the store owner and their level of interest in selling healthy foods, and to start building a relationship with them. Keep in mind that there are many reasons why owners may initially be suspicious of outsiders who are trying to change their store.
When you’re choosing stores to work with, key criteria to consider include the overall viability and quality of the store, the store’s physical infrastructure and capacity to improve it, the location relative to other significant features such as schools and transit stops, and the nature of the store’s relationship with the community. Key factors to consider in assessing store owners are their level of interest and motivation to make positive changes, their experience with selling fresh produce or other healthy items, and their potential to be innovative and learn new skills.
Take time to get to know corner store owners and demonstrate that you are sensitive to their needs. Be respectful of their time and try to visit when the store is not busy. Learn a few greetings in the owner’s primary language if it is different from yours. Find out what they think about the changes you are considering, and what could make it work for them. Pace your requests—store owners will be more likely to disclose valuable information or make significant changes once they get to know you.
Keep showing up consistently over time to build the relationship. Offer helpful information, resources, and support, including help with tasks like organizing displays or putting up signage (see #9 and 10). Continue to check in with store owners about how the changes are working out and what else might be helpful to them. Be honest with them; don’t over-promise and always follow through on your commitments.
Balance support with accountability. If you are providing significant resources or support to the store in exchange for them making changes, develop a written agreement that spells out each party’s role (and keep it simple, since this can be intimidating for store owners). Grant or loan programs that require participating stores to meet certain conditions to receive funds are one good way to promote accountability. It’s also important to monitor the store to ensure that they are following the agreement.
Corner stores get their food from a wide variety of sources. Many items, including alcohol, tobacco, soda, and many ‘junk’ foods, are delivered regularly by various distributors. (In general, unhealthy food items are distributed much more widely than healthy ones.) Stores also may have one main distributor that supplies a variety of grocery items such as canned goods and paper products. They get fresh produce from a variety of sources that may include wholesale distributors or produce markets, large discount stores or buying clubs, supermarkets, and/or local farms or farmers’ markets. Purchasing produce at retail outlets is very common, and can contribute to higher prices at corner stores, since the store owner will add their mark-up to the retail price they paid.
In many cases, corner stores are not aware of all the distribution options available to them. Also, it can be difficult for small stores to meet minimum order requirements or get good prices from distributors. Support organizations can help stores identify and connect with distributors that offer healthier items, ideally at wholesale prices. (State convenience store associations and trade associations for produce, dairy, etc. can provide this information.) You can appeal to distributors to build their businesses or be good neighbors by offering healthier foods or better terms to small-scale stores in underserved areas, or you can help stores get better prices by pooling their orders with other businesses. Lastly, you also can help stores source directly from local farms or farmers’ markets.
Community buy-in and support are important not only to promote strong sales of healthy products in the short term, but also to help ensure that healthy changes will be sustained over time in both corner store inventories and people’s diets. Corner store projects and promotions are more likely to succeed when they are developed with significant community input and involvement. Youth and adults both can play key roles in publicizing and mobilizing support for local healthy stores.
It is important that community members are aware of healthy foods in local stores, know how to use these foods in their daily diets, and understand the nutritional benefits. Posting outdoor signs, advertising changes in stores, and sending out flyers can help ensure that customers are aware of new products. Prominent, attractive displays and discount pricing can draw customers in to stores and promote sales of healthy items, especially for foods that are already popular. In-store promotional activities such as taste tests and cooking demonstrations are effective ways to bring people in to the store, familiarize them with new foods, and help them learn how to use these products. Finally, providing nutrition information in simple, accessible formats and appropriate languages helps customers understand how specific foods can contribute to their health.
Many factors influence the success of corner store projects. Like other community projects, they are more likely to be effective when they are grounded in the community, and when residents have significant input and involvement. Community members and organizations can play many important roles in corner store initiatives (see #9 and #10).
Providing appropriate incentives and support to help store owners overcome barriers to selling healthy foods successfully is another key factor. This may include equipment, financing, training, and/or technical assistance. Generally, it’s a good idea to start small and build up to more significant changes as rapport and trust develop with the store owner. It’s also crucial to choose the stores well, and to ensure that the owners are committed to the partnership and have the motivation and capacity to sell healthy items effectively (see #12 and #13). The owners need to be willing to invest extra effort initially, and to sustain changes on their own after a transition period. Sustainability should be built into the program design.
Finally, it is important to make the community aware of healthy changes in local stores through social marketing, publicity, and promotions (see #15).
Policy and the broader context
Local policy—including land use, economic development, redevelopment, and transportation policy—can support healthy corner stores in two key ways. First, local policy can influence store operations (such as the products carried, store signage, hours of operation, etc.) For example, zoning ordinances determine what can be built where, and what activities can take place on a parcel of land. Communities can use zoning laws to create business definitions of corner stores that require them to carry healthy foods. They also can develop tax incentives to promote healthy stores. Local economic development policies can be targeted to offer grants, loans, or technical assistance for corner store owners, which could include support for development costs, façade improvement, infrastructure upgrades (refrigeration, etc.), workforce development, and business planning.
Second, local policy can influence the neighborhood environment surrounding stores (such as store location, neighborhood safety and walkability, and the mix of neighborhood uses). A vibrant, walkable community means more business for small stores. Local land use plans can encourage a mix of uses, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly streets, and community design that fosters safety and a sense of connection.Your local planning and community/economic development agencies can be key partners. Reach out to them and encourage them to work with you to adopt and implement policies that support corner store business sustainability and a healthy community.
ChangeLab Solutions Website
In October, 2009, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a federal food assistance program, changed the list of products store owners must stock to participate in the program. WIC-authorized stores are now required to carry fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and other healthy foods specified in the new rules.
These changes could mean greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods for low-income families across the nation. WIC also provides a steady stream of income for small stores that participate in the program. WIC shoppers spend $88 million a year in WIC checks in California alone, and national surveys have shown that a vast majority of WIC participants would purchase fresh fruits and vegetables if they had the opportunity. Even families who aren’t eligible for the program will benefit from the changes, because neighborhood WIC stores will be required to sell healthier food items.
However, many small-scale stores are not equipped for the new program requirements, which could mean a lost opportunity for the communities that most need healthy foods. If corner stores are not able to stock the new foods, they could lose their status as WIC-authorized vendors. Support organizations can play an important role in helping these stores make the transition successfully (see #19).
Owners of small-scale stores that do not currently stock healthy foods required under the new WIC package may need financial and technical assistance in order to upgrade their operations. They may need to invest in refrigeration units or other infrastructure to store perishable foods required under the new guidelines. They may need to find new distributors who carry produce or other healthy foods, and/or they may need to learn how to handle and store produce.
WIC program staff can work with store owners to clarify the new requirements, but they are not allowed to provide any business development assistance to retailers. Support organizations can play a critical role in connecting corner store owners to appropriate local resources, and in helping local experts understand the unique requirements of the WIC program. For example, city agencies (especially economic development) are charged with providing support that could help store owners survive the changes to the WIC program, including grants, loans, and technical expertise. However, most are not familiar enough with the WIC program and the new guidelines to help.
To help store owners identify a distributor for healthy food items, check with similarly-sized stores in your area that are already stocking these items. Like economic development staff, distributors also may need information about the new WIC program requirements and the unique needs of small-scale stores. To find information about how to handle fresh produce, check with distributors or your state’s department of agriculture.
Corner stores are part of a broader landscape, so it’s valuable to consider corner store projects within a larger community design context. Find out who else in your target community is working to implement healthy changes—this may include health organizations, planners, child advocacy groups, and neighborhood associations. Consider how to frame corner store issues using lenses that are important to them, such as public health, economic development, and community safety. Explore whether you can coordinate efforts or develop integrated approaches to improving food access and community health.
You may find opportunities to connect corner store work with other efforts through community development initiatives, public health campaigns, or food policy councils. Corner store projects can be part of a broader initiative to improve food retail in underserved areas, which might also include a plan to attract a larger grocery store. Healthy corner stores can be linked with nearby farmers’ markets (by sourcing produce), Community Supported Agriculture farms (by serving as pick-up sites), and/or school food initiatives (by involving youth or coordinating efforts to promote healthy foods). Advocates also can work with transit officials to locate transit stops near healthy corner stores as a way to increase access to healthy foods.
Partnering with community safety groups can link store façade and lighting changes (which can reduce loitering and make customers feel safer) with a broader strategy to improve street corners. You also can connect healthy corner stores with broader neighborhood or commercial corridor revitalization efforts by working with community development organizations to promote mixed-use, pedestrian- and bike- friendly neighborhoods that include transit access, affordable housing, and daily retail and service needs.
Kai Siedenburg, Community Food Security Coalition
Brianna Almaguer Sandoval, The Food Trust
Hannah Laurison and Heather Wooten, ChangeLab Solutions
James Johnson-Piett, Urbane Development
We are grateful to the UPS Foundation for funding this project.