Chief Operating Officer at Dollar General
Thank you, John. Let me take the next few minutes to update you on our operating priorities and strategic initiatives, including our plans for 2022. Our first operating priority is driving profitable sales growth. We have a growing portfolio of initiatives, which are contributing to our strong results as well as strengthening the foundation for future growth.
Let me take you through some of the recent highlights as well as some of our next steps. Starting with our non-consumables initiative or NCI, which was available in more than 11,700 stores at the end of 2021. We continued to be very pleased with the strong sales and margin performance we are seeing across the NCI store base. Notably, NCI stores outperformed non-NCI stores in both average ticket and customer traffic, driving an incremental 2.5% total comp sales increase on average at NCI stores along with a meaningful improvement in gross margin rate. We expect to realize ongoing sales and margin benefits from NCI in 2022, and we are on track to complete the rollout across nearly the entire chain by the end of the year.
Moving to our newest store concept, pOpshelf, which further builds on our success and learnings with NCI. As a reminder, pOpshelf aims to engage customers by offering a fun, affordable and differentiated treasure hunt experience delivered through continually refreshed merchandise, a differentiated in-store experience and exceptional value with the vast majority of our items priced at $5 or less.
During the quarter, we opened 25 new pOpshelf locations, bringing the total number of stores to 55 and exceeding our initial goal of 50 stores. Additionally, we opened 11 new store within a store concepts during Q4, bringing the total number of Dollar General market stores with a smaller footprint pOpshelf store included to a total of 25 at the end of the year, and we continue to be pleased with the results.
In 2022, we plan to nearly triple the pOpshelf store count and open up to an additional 25 store within a store concepts, which would bring us to a total of more than 150 standalone pOpshelf locations and a total of approximately 50 store within a store concepts. We continued to anticipate year one annualized sales volumes for our current locations to be between $1.7 million and $2 million per store and expect the average gross margin rate for these stores to exceed 40%.
In addition to the early success of pOpshelf, we have been able to take some of our learnings and apply them in our Dollar General store base, particularly in further enhancing our non-consumables offering. Overall, we are very pleased with the results from this unique and differentiated concept, and we are excited about our goal of approximately 1,000 pOpshelf locations by year end 2025.
Turning now to DG Fresh, which is a strategic multi-phase shift to self-distribution of frozen and refrigerated goods along with a focus on driving continued sales growth in these areas. As a reminder, we completed the initial rollout of DG Fresh across the entire chain in 2021 and are now delivering to more than 18,000 stores from 12 facilities. The primary objective of DG Fresh is to reduce product costs on our frozen and refrigerated items, and we continue to be very pleased with the savings we are seeing. Notably, DG Fresh was a meaningful positive contributor to our gross margin rate in 2021, and we expect to see continued benefits in 2022.
Another important goal of DG Fresh is to increase sales in our frozen and refrigerated categories. We are pleased with the performance on this front, including enhanced product offerings in stores and strong performance from our perishables department. In fact, our perishables department had a high-single-digit comp increase in Q4 and contributed more comp sales dollars than any other department for both Q4 and the full year. Importantly, the sales penetration of these categories has increased to approximately 9% as compared to approximately 8% prior to the rollout of DG Fresh.
In 2022, we expect to realize additional benefits from DG Fresh as we continue to optimize our network, further leverage our scale and deliver an even wider product selection. And while produce is not included in our initial rollout, we continue to believe that DG Fresh provides a potential path forward to expanding our produce offering to more than 10,000 stores over time. To that end, at the end of Q4, we offered produce in more than 2,100 stores with plans to expand this offering to a total of more than 3,000 stores by the end of 2022.
Finally, DG Fresh has also extended the reach of our cooler expansion program. During 2021, we added more than 65,000 cooler doors across our store base. In 2022, we again expect to install more than 65,000 additional doors as we continue to build on our multi-year track record of growth in cooler doors and associated sales.
Turning now to an update on our expanded health offering, which consists of up to 30% more feet of selling space and up to 400 additional items as compared to our standard offering. This offering was available in nearly 1,200 stores at the end of 2021 with plans to expand to a total of more than 4,000 stores by the end of 2022. As we move toward becoming more of a health destination, particularly in rural America, our plans include further expansion of our health offering with the goal of increasing access to basic healthcare products and ultimately services over time. In addition to the gross margin benefits associated with the initiatives I just discussed, we continue to pursue other opportunities to enhance gross margin, including improvements in private brand sales, global sourcing, supply chain efficiencies and shrink reduction.
Our second priority is capturing growth opportunities. Our proven, high-return, low-risk real estate model has served us well for many years and continues to be a core strength of our business. In 2021, we completed a total of 2,902 real estate projects, including 1,050 new stores, 1,752 remodels and 100 relocations. For 2022, we've remained on track to execute nearly 3,000 real estate projects in total, including 1,110 new stores, 1,750 remodels and 120 store relocations.
As a reminder, we expect approximately 800 of our new stores in 2022 to be in our larger 8,500 square foot store format, allowing for an expanded assortment and room to accommodate future growth as we respond to our customers' desire for an even wider product selection. Importantly, we continue to be very pleased with the sales productivity of all of our larger format stores as average sales per square foot are about 15% above an average traditional store.
In addition to our planned Dollar General and pOpshelf growth in 2022 and included in our expected new store total, we are very excited about our plans to expand internationally with the goal of opening up to 10 stores in Mexico by the end of 2022. Overall, our real estate pipeline remains robust with more brick and mortar stores than any retailer in the country, and we are excited about our ability to capture significant growth opportunities in the years ahead.
Next, our digital initiative, which is an important complement to our physical footprint as we continue to deploy and leverage technology to further enhance convenience and access for our customers. Our efforts remain centered around building engagement across our digital properties, including our mobile app. We ended 2021 with over 4 million monthly active users on the app and expect this number to grow as we look to further enhance our digital offerings.
As with everything we do, the customer is at the center of our digital initiative. Our partnership with DoorDash is the latest example of these efforts as we look to extend the value offering of Dollar General combined with the convenience of same-day delivery in an hour or less. This offering was available in more than 10,700 stores at the end of Q4, and we are very pleased with the early results, including our ability to generate profitable transactions as well as better than expected customer trial, strong repurchase rates, high levels of sales incrementality and a broadening of our customer base.
In addition, our DG Media Network is becoming increasingly more relevant in connecting our brand partners with our customers. To that end, we significantly grew the reach of this network in 2021, increasing from 6 million unique active profiles to more than 75 million, enabling our vendors to now reach over 90% of our DG customers through the DG Media Network.
After establishing the foundation over the last few years, we are poised to meaningfully grow this business in 2022 and beyond and as we expand the program and enhance the value proposition for both our customers and brand partners, while increasing the overall net financial benefit for the business. Overall, our strategy consists of building a digital ecosystem specifically tailored to provide our customers with an even more convenient, frictionless and personalized shopping experience, and we are pleased with the growing engagement we are seeing across our digital properties.
Our third operating priority is to leverage and reinforce our position as a low-cost operator. We have a clear and defined process to control spending, which continues to govern our disciplined approach to spending decisions. This zero-based budgeting approach, internally branded as Save to Serve, keeps the customer at the center of all we do, while reinforcing our cost control mindset. Notably, the Save to Serve program contributed more than $800 million in cumulative cost savings from its inception in 2015 through the end of 2021.
Our Fast Track initiative is a great example of this approach where our goals include increasing labor productivity in our stores, enhancing customer convenience and further improving on shelf availability. The first phase of Fast Track consisted of both rolltainer and case pack optimization, which has led to the more efficient stocking of our stores. The second component of Fast Track is self-checkout, which provides customers with another flexible and convenient checkout solution, while also driving greater efficiencies for our store associates. Self-checkout was available in more than 6,100 stores at the end of 2021. We continue to be pleased with our results, including strong and growing customer adoption rates and high scores on speed and ease of checkout. In 2022, we plan to expand this offering to a total of up to 11,000 stores by the end of the year as we look to further extend our position as an innovative leader in small box discount retail.
Looking ahead, the next phase of Fast Track consists of increasing our utilization of emerging technology and data strategies, which includes putting new digital tools in the hands of our field leaders in 2022. When combined with our data-driven inventory management, we believe these efforts will reduce store workload and drive greater efficiencies for our retail associates and leaders.
I also want to highlight our growing private fleet, which consisted of more than 700 tractors and accounted for approximately 20% of our outbound transportation fleet at the end of 2021. We are focused on significantly expanding our private fleet in 2022 as we plan to more than double the number of tractors we expect will account for approximately 40% of our outbound transportation fleet by the end of the year.
Importantly, we save an average of 20% of associated costs every time we replace a third-party tractor with one from our private fleet. Moving forward, we believe our private fleet will become an increasingly significant competitive advantage as it gives us greater operational control than our supply chain, while further optimizing our cost structure. Our underlying principles are to keep the business simple, but move quickly to capture growth opportunities, while controlling expenses and always seeking to be a low-cost operator.
Our fourth operating priority is investing in our diverse teams through development, empowerment and inclusion. As a growing retailer, we created thousands of new jobs in 2021, providing career growth opportunities for existing associates and the start of a career for many others. In 2022, we now expect to create more than 10,000 net new jobs as a result of our continued growth. Our internal promotion pipeline remains robust, as evidenced by our internal placement of more than 75% of our store associates at or above the lead sales associate positions.
We also continue to innovate on development for our teams to provide ongoing opportunities for career advancement, and in turn, meaningful wage growth. These investments include offering an enhanced college tuition benefit for our associates and their families as well as continuing to facilitate driver training programs for associates who would like to become drivers in our private fleet. In addition to our focus on development, we continue to focus on further enhancing the associate experience and our strong workplace culture.
Collectively, these investments continue to yield positive results across our organization, including healthy applicant flow and strong critical staffing levels. We believe the opportunity to start and develop a career with a growing and purpose-driven company is a unique competitive advantage and remains our greatest currency in attracting and retaining talent. Overall, we made significant progress against our operating priorities and strategic initiatives in 2021. These efforts have further strengthened our foundation and position heading into 2022 as we continue to drive long-term sustainable growth.
In closing, I'm proud of the team's strong and resilient performance in 2021. As we enter 2022, we are laser-focused on executing and delivering our robust plans, which we believe will further enhance our unique combination of value and convenience for our customers, while delivering strong returns for our shareholders. I want to thank our approximately 163,000 employees for their tireless dedication to fulfilling our mission of serving others every day. And I'm looking forward to all we will accomplish together in the year ahead.
With that, operator, we would now like to open the lines for questions.