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Our lives are packed with responsibilities and people are busier than ever. As a result, consumers have less time to devote to meal preparation at home and are turning to alternate channels to fill the void. This is evident by the rise in demand for freshly prepared food in supermarkets, quick-serve restaurants and convenience stores as consumers increasingly seek out on-the-go food choices. Even coffee chains are introducing breakfast and lunch options to meet this growing demand. So, as c-store operators, what can you do to entice customers into purchasing meals at your store rather than competing outlets?
MWV recently conducted research among c-store consumers with a goal of better understanding their purchasing habits, customer profile and the importance of packaging in the shopping experience. The research uncovered several key areas of importance for c-store customers and identified some interesting opportunities for c-store operators to utilize packaging to attract and retain customers.
The major themes that emerged from the research reinforced that consumers are looking for value, fresh and healthy fare, portability and environmentally conscious options in their c-store food and beverage purchases.
The economic downturn changed American consumers' approach to shopping. Consumers at all income levels now keep a watchful eye on discretionary spending, especially when it comes to eating out. When consumers do make the decision to spend their money, they want to feel like they are getting a good value. This focus on value also applies to purchases at c-stores.
Excluding gas, some of the most-often purchased items at convenience stores are beverages. Approximately 70 percent of respondents said they regularly or occasionally purchase fountain drinks or hot beverages at c-stores. So, how can c-stores use beverages to highlight their food offerings, making them so tempting that customers can't refuse?
With the increased focus on value, combo meals offer c-store operators an opportunity to increase customer purchases (cash register rings) per visit by bundling foodservice items with beverages, which are undeniably a destination item for c-store consumers.
Packaging can play an important role in creating combo and value bundles by making it easier for customers to quickly grab and carry multiple items. Packaging also creates a billboard opportunity for the c-store operator to promote other value bundles, including coupons to encourage future purchases or simply advertise the store's brand. Bundle packaging can be beneficial to both consumers and operators, providing the perception of value the consumer wants, while leading to higher sales for the operation.
Fresh & Healthy
With the increased attention on the growing national obesity epidemic and the recent release of updated nutritional guidelines, it is not surprising that customers are on the lookout for healthy and fresh food options. While more c-stores are offering healthy and fresh foods, customers may not be aware they are available.
Nearly 60 percent of respondents indicated that offering healthy meal options was extremely or very important to them when shopping for ready-to-eat food or beverages in a c-store. Additionally, almost 80 percent of respondents said offering food that looks appetizing was extremely or very important to them when shopping for ready-to-eat food or beverages in a c-store.
C-store operators can appeal to this growing trend through use of packaging that conveys a fresh and healthy image, and by displaying food in a way that connotes freshness. Advances in packaging materials and technology make it possible to keep food fresher -- and fresh looking -- longer, making it more appealing to consumers. Clear windows, for example, allow customers to see the quality and freshness level of the product, making it more tempting for them to buy.
Our research shows that more than 50 percent of c-store food items and nearly 75 percent of beverages are consumed in the car. With long commutes and hectic schedules, people don't have a lot of time to sit and dine, so easily transported food and drink options from convenience stores fit the needs of consumers with busy lifestyles.
To continue meeting this need, it is critical for c-stores to provide food and drink options that can be easily transported from store to car -- and perhaps even to home, work or the local sporting event -- in packaging that maintains the integrity of the food and facilitates eating in the car. For example, resealable packaging or specialty designed packaging that uses features of your car to prevent spilling are packaging innovations that make it easier to eat on the run.
And you can't forget about children. Busy parents often have hungry little ones with them, so in many cases, the quick snack or easy-to-grab meal is for a child. Nearly one in five respondents indicated a reason they do not buy ready-to-eat food or beverages at a c-store is because they lack options for kids. To attract new consumers, c-stores can offer more kid-friendly selections, such as smaller portions and healthier fare. Packaging can enhance the experience by providing billboard space for kid-friendly advertising and being appropriately sized for smaller hands, enabling children to consume their food on the go with greater ease.
Sustainable options and the environment continue to be concerns for consumers, and whether consumers feel under social pressure to be seen as taking positive actions for the environment or they want to lower their impact, they most definitely want choices. Packaging is an important way to address this trend for c-stores as "green" consumers are a growing sub-segment of the population.
Only 29 percent of respondents completely or somewhat agreed that packaging currently used in c-stores is environmentally friendly, but food packaging that conveys a more environmentally conscious image can help to attract this growing segment. Offering paperboard packaging that has recycled content or is compostable can appeal to these consumers and drive additional sales.
Disposal of packaging and food waste is another potential area of opportunity. Of the most frequently cited challenges for "green" consumers is the lack of options to dispose of waste in an environmentally conscious way. Forty-two percent of respondents said environmentally friendly disposal methods are not readily available, and 39 percent said packaging is not recyclable or compostable. Offering consumers foodservice items that are served in packaging that has recycled content or is compostable, and offering them recycling and composting disposal bins, are easy steps to take to address consumers' concerns and increase sales.
Packaging is an often overlooked opportunity for operators, but can be a differentiator to attract new customers and increase cash register rings among existing customers. With the abundance of outlets selling freshly prepared food and beverages, c-store operators can use these insights to employ simple strategies that will grow sales and help them stand out from the competition.
John K. Sanfacon is president of the foodservice packaging business for MWV, which provides packaging solutions to many of the world's most-admired brands in the healthcare, beauty and personal care, food, beverage, home and garden, tobacco and commercial print industries. MWV collaborates with foodservice customers to develop solutions to best meet their needs.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.