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A quiet revolution has gone on in American grocery retailing during the past five years. Nationally branded organic grocers have undertaken a grand experiment by offering up freshly prepared grab-n-go foods made from whole ingredients and with virtually no traces of industrial food processing. And they taste really, really good. Fast casual restaurants have also driven this revolution by offering fresher-tasting, higher quality food just as fast as traditional QSRs.
The result? Consumers' patience for lowering their quality expectations just so they can have convenient food has worn very, very thin. Quality fresh food, beyond the home, is simply no longer that inconvenient for many urban and suburban Americans. And convenience stores with a low proportion of fresh, high-quality foods simply have no excuse anymore.
Revamping product portfolios and supply-chain management is not the answer. The problem for convenience stores trying to tap into the quiet revolution in fresh goes deeper than just localizing the supply chain so that foods sold in far-flung convenience channels don't have to be bastardized for the infamously unnatural durability that creates that artificial "Twinkie" taste.
Certainly, changing distribution channels can be a step in the right direction: 7-Eleven, for example, recently announced it has rolled out national, computerized supply-chain technology that allows it to fill small SKU volumes the next day, using local vendors and warehouses. This allows each store to customize its offerings in great detail, much like independent coffee shops do. 7-Eleven is also developing a network of fresh foods kitchens and vendors to supply its stores with daily loads of fresh foods as well. Their model is Japan, the world leader in just-in-time supply chains and truly constant new product development.
But there are problems in adapting this hyper-modern model too narrowly to the convenient channeling of fresh foods in the United States. The expanding consumer world of American "fresh foods" increasingly requires an anti-industrial, almost pre-modern, in-store experience, one component of which is a product portfolio that meets the higher quality standards consumers have for these foods.
Credibility in Fresh Convenience Retailing
The key to succeeding in "fresh" foods in the United States, whether in regular grocery or in convenience outlets, lies in two factors:
1. Creating an in-store experience that places your retail brand in direct opposition to the sensorial signs of industrial food processing.
2. Requiring clear signals of hygiene and purity to educated, middle-class Americans -- especially women. Female consumers, after all, tend to be the strictest guardians of what is and is not "fresh" on convenient food buying occasions, especially when buying convenience foods for their children.
The problem for convenience store brands in the United States is not just that consumers all associate them with industrially processed "junk" food. They also have an in-store experience that says anything but fresh. Consumers associate these stores with noise, unnaturally vivid colors, low standards of cleanliness, chemical smells, antisocial staff, harsh lighting, industrial flooring and vile bathrooms (that seldom seem to work).
The overarching theme here is that retail brands associated historically with the "non-fresh" have a very large burden of distrust to overcome when moving into the fresh foods arena. To build this trust requires communicating all sorts of subtle, indirect signals that fresh-oriented convenience food shoppers increasingly associate with credible fresh food retailing. Simply slapping a "fresh" designation on a storefront or a package will fail if the entire brand is already associated with "processed food."
These indirect signals of fresh focus largely on building trust through a very simple analogy: If they care this much about an innovative, quality in-store experience, then they probably do care enough to make "fresh" food that really is fresh. And in grocery retailing, the symbolic language of "fresh" tends to involve cues of the "natural."
Exterior Design: Replace neon or unnaturally colored signage; use wood, brick or tile exterior storefronts; create flowery entrances.
Sensory Cues: Make the smell of fresh food, not chlorine, hit every consumer upon entry.
Interior Design: Use natural colors only; use natural materials for visible interior spaces (e.g., wood, stone tiles, hand-crafted artistic decorations, etc.).
Lighting: Use lights that are muted, soft and warm, evoking the natural warmth of candle and fire without being quite so dim.
Show Signs of Fresh Food Preparation: Make the preparation of fresh food visible, either by making it happen inside the store or by displaying visual narratives of how it gets made
Staff Behavior: Hire articulate, fluent staff who know how the store's "fresh items" get made. If they can't talk about the origin of the fresh food, the fresh-oriented shopper immediately assumes that the food is mass-produced in some factory-like setting. They will make this assumption regardless of point-of-purchase signage or package designations. Also, require dress and grooming that signals the kind of people who would care enough to make high-quality fresh food. Hire staff from the local area who can build first-name relationships that, in turn, build trust that what gets made fresh in the store, really is freshly prepared.
Natural Cleanliness: Eliminate visible dirt on counters, floors and storefronts; maintain cleanliness through basic, non-mechanized equipment (e.g., brooms, mops, etc.); avoid harsh chemicals since they produce harsh odors -- signals of industrial processing that will work against other "fresh cues."
One of the unspoken reasons for 7-Eleven Japan's success may be the fact that the Japanese fresh foods buyer doesn't demand cues of the natural within their in-store environments in order to believe that the food is fresh, clean and safe to eat. The Japanese affection for neon, hyper-modern retail environments may resonate, or even, support the credibility of fresh food offered there.
Unfortunately, that's not the case in America. U.S. convenience food retailers who want to get serious about fresh food need to orient themselves more to the in-store experience of Parisian patisseries and corner bakeries and less to the supply-chain innovations of Tokyo. Fresh food doesn't speak for itself in the United States. It requires quite a complex store experience to support it.
James F. Richardson, Ph.D., is senior research associate at The Hartman Group, a consulting and market research firm (www.hartman-group.com). Trained in cultural anthropology, James has expertise in understanding why people change their behavior and value systems. At The Hartman Group, James designs and conducts ethnographic fieldwork and analysis on a variety of qualitative research projects. His interests include value-driven behavioral changes, emerging social movements and the link between wellness, consumption and spiritual values.