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JERSEY CITY, N.J. – The foodservice world is changing rapidly, and convenience store operators are competing against retailers outside their channel for the attention and dollars of consumers who care more about what they buy than where they buy it.
This was the topic of "The Blurred Lines of On-the-Go Foodservice," a groundbreaking live studio webcast presented Thursday by Convenience Store News and Tyson Foods Inc. Participants included Jerome Hunsinger, marketing brand manager, AM foodservice, Wawa Inc.; Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice, Rutter's Farm Stores; Eric Le Blanc, vice president of marketing for convenience store, deli & bakery, Tyson Foods; and Don Longo, editorial director of Convenience Store News.
Fifteen years ago, the idea of quality c-store foodservice would "get a lot of laughs," Longo remarked during the webcast. Today, however, c-store chains such as Wawa, Rutter's, QuikTrip and Sheetz have raised the consumer perception of quality food at their stores and had an effect on how the entire industry is viewed.
The attributes of c-store foodservice consumers care most about include quality, freshness and cleanliness, according to multiple consumers interviewed on the street.
Quality in particular "ranks very high," said Hunsinger. As a result, Wawa is working on how it shows things to customers, along with what product it offers. By displaying a wide variety of items such as vegetable hoagie toppings and putting food first, the chain lets people know that it is in the fresh food business.
For Rutter's, a key change came seven years ago when the chain began to focus on creating more of a restaurant industry experience, according to Weiner. This includes aspects such as indoor seating, as well as the actual food.
For c-stores, success in today's foodservice world comes from adopting the mindset of a consumer rather than a retailer –- and hungry consumers aren't looking for something to buy, they're looking for a meal. "Consumers want to be romanced by food," said Longo. "It's supposed to be fun."
Food that is made to order can do this by elevating the perception of all food available at a c-store, according to Tyson's Le Blanc. When some food is prepared on-site, even prepacked items such as salads are perceived to be fresher. "Winning at foodservice becomes a formula for winning across your whole store," he explained.
Success with made-to-order foodservice requires a commitment from top management down, however.
Participants also discussed various ways c-stores can get consumers to try their foodservice offerings once they're in place. Simple, upfront messaging through traditional advertising and social media are effective at getting consumers to understand what they have to offer. Operators should also look at what customers are already purchasing and approach them with fitting offers, such as persuading coffee drinkers to buy a breakfast sandwich as well.
Regardless of a c-store's specific way of approaching foodservice, operators must remember that the way consumers eat is changing. The current generation eats out more than any other, and "any distinction between meal and snack vanishes," blurring the very lines between dayparts, Le Blanc said. Also, while breakfast, mid-morning snack time and lunch make up the c-store "industry sweet spot," 46 percent of foodservice visits happen after 2 p.m., creating considerable opportunities to address the consumer need for a p.m. snack.
Finally, when making decisions about what to offer customers and how to offer it, c-stores should not rely solely on what customers say they want. For example, many say they want healthy products, but their purchasing habits don't bear that out, although there is a "healthier halo" that includes better-for-you items like smoothies. The key is to examine consumer behavior and take that into consideration accordingly.
A replay of the webcast is available by clicking here.