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BELLEVUE, Wash. -- Although convenience stores are currently losing the lunch battle to fast-food restaurants that have added fresher, healthier fare, they still have the chance to become the top go-to lunch destination for consumers that want quick, easy and accessible meals, according to market research firm The Hartman Group Inc.'s latest HartBeat report.
Quick-service chains such as Subway and Panera Bread offer items that are lower in calories and made while customers wait, but they don't offer the convenience desired by many busy customers who don't have time to wait around or sit down for lunch. Meanwhile, fast-food restaurants that don't focus on easy-to-carry sandwiches are adding portable alternatives, such as KFC's "Go Cup" that fits in a standard car cupholder.
C-stores already offer quick, easy and accessible food options, but they tend not to be as fresh or healthy, the researcher stated. As a result, consumers turn to c-stores for snacks, but not for lunch, according to Hartman's research. This is partly because quick-service chains are dominant when it comes to sandwiches, but also because consumers view them as offering tastier food. When flavor is an important consideration, 42 percent of consumers consider quick-service outlets, compared to just 31 percent that look to c-stores.
Convenience stores can become more competitive at lunch by noting what quick-service chains are doing right, such as conveying impressions of freshness by preparing food while customers watch, and improving food and experience quality by allowing order customization, according to Hartman.
Other ways c-stores can improve are to:
- Capitalize on shifting eating habits, noting that more consumers are looking for easy-to-consume food on the go when they are busy;
- Look beyond the traditional customer base of men aged 18 to 24; and
- Consider that consumers are eating alone more frequently. Fifty-seven percent of meals and snacks purchased at c-stores are consumed alone, a much higher figure than the 30 percent of fast-food items that are eaten alone.
In order to take advantage of these trends and catch up with fast food, Hartman recommends that c-stores add more items besides pre-wrapped sandwiches that are still quick and easy, but convey higher quality and more flavor. Such items could include pre-cut fruit cups served in single packages with a fork; cut vegetables and hummus snack packs; or smaller versions of traditionally large dishes, such as single-serve pasta salads and half-sized sandwiches.
Additionally, c-stores could improve by changing their interior designs to set the right tone for quality and consumer engagement, as the channel’s traditional linoleum and fluorescent lights don't encourage customers to imagine themselves enjoying the food they see.