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According to research conducted by NACS, convenience stores are the most frequented channel for purchasing prepared foods and beverages at retail. The research also states convenience stores capture 54 percent of all foodservice traffic at retail outlets.
It's no wonder, with their small footprint and heavily trafficked locations, that convenience stores are a quick and accessible food solution for our time-starved and highly mobile society. If convenience stores want to successfully compete and grow in the foodservice category, it is imperative that their offerings meet consumer demands for convenience and quality, both of which have significant implications for packaging solutions.
Packaging considerations start not on the shelf, but at the back of the house where efficient operations are critical for maximizing productivity and gaining a competitive edge. In terms of competition for convenience foodservice operations, the primary contenders are quick-service restaurant formats, which include kitchens designed and engineered for speed and efficiency, whereas most convenience stores operate without a full-service kitchen or even adequate space in the back of house.
In the absence of a full-service kitchen, convenience stores often utilize cold-cavity cooking methods that depend on the use of ventless and hoodless appliances such as microwaves and convection ovens. These formats require that products be formulated and packaged in a specific manner in order to ensure compatibility with these types of cooking technologies.
For example, in addition to packaging materials that can withstand certain temperatures during product reheating, convenience store products should include packaging that features safety and convenience elements such as self-venting film and stay-cool handles, minimizing steps in the preparation process and the risk of employee burns. Also, for products reheated in the package, the package shape, material and design can have a major impact on how evenly the product reheats.
With less space for food preparation and dry storage, convenience store operators face even greater challenges when it comes to their foodservice operations. By incorporating products with efficient package size and shape, operators can make better use of their space. Many products that arrive in bulky foodservice No. 10 cans could be transformed into stackable pouches, taking up less storage space on the shelf and generating less waste material for disposal. Also, products that are portion-packaged reduce the amount of labor and time required to break down and prepare foodservice items.
Making Convenience Convenient
When it comes to foodservice operations, packaging can streamline tasks in a number of ways, such as eliminating the need for utensils during the food preparation process and offering reclosable and microwavable formats. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that more than 14 thousand cuts and punctures occur every year in foodservice settings. By incorporating knifeless, easy-open formats into foodservice packaging, operators can reduce employee use of sharp utensils and potential injury.
Additionally, foodservice products that cannot be portioned for single use can benefit from reclosable technologies, eliminating the need for repackaging, saving both time and labor. The previously mentioned microwave formats made possible through packaging technology also can assist in foodservice operations by reducing the need for skilled labor in the preparation and reheating process.
Convenient packaging offerings should, by no means, be limited to convenience store foodservice operations either. According to the NACS, 80 percent of goods purchased at convenience stores are consumed within the first hour and 60 percent are consumed immediately. With convenience store customers accessing these food items so quickly, it is paramount that they can quickly open, reclose and/or reheat them with minimal effort.
Quality Is Key
Last, but certainly not least, convenience store foodservice operations must meet the growing consumer demand for quality. Packaging that utilizes vacuum and oxygen scavenging technologies can increase product quality life and shelf life over time by reducing the oxidation and resulting degradation of food products. The use of scavenging films in packaging also enables processors to use fewer preservatives and clean up labels to achieve a more natural product. This can go a long way in increasing consumer perceptions of freshness and quality in regard to convenience store foodservice offerings.
Utilizing retort and aseptic shelf-stability pouch technologies is another way to increase the quality perception of foodservice offerings. These technologies result in higher-quality shelf-stable products vs. traditional canning methods, and can be extended to items such as condiments, dairy products, soups and even oxygen-sensitive fruits and vegetables. This can lead to an easy expansion of quality foodservice menu offerings without consuming valuable real estate in the refrigerator or freezer case.
While efficiency, convenience and quality are key elements to growing convenience store foodservice operations, it is also important to address the issue of food waste and sustainability. According to an International Packaging Institute study, roughly 25 percent of food in the United States is thrown out -- in many cases, accounting for significant economic losses for businesses.
Discarded food not only contributes to landfills and the production of methane gases, but also cuts into food retailer and foodservice operational budgets. Compound this loss with the disposal costs associated with frequently emptying commercial dumpsters and it is clear packaging that reduces food and packaging waste can result in significant cost savings over time.
Packaging for the Future
As convenience store foodservice operations continue to grow and evolve, packaging will play a crucial role in expanding this category. We will likely continue to see a growth in convenience-store branded products that can be greatly supported with package design and the incorporation of innovative packaging technologies into these products. Also, as labeling laws continue to expand, the importance of the role of packaging in communicating nutritional items will continue to grow.
Convenience store operators that start focusing now on packaging technologies and how they affect operations will find themselves ahead of the game. They will also gain immediate benefits in terms of efficiencies, product quality, customer satisfaction and a competitive advantage.
Lucian Gray is the North America foodservice director for Sealed Air's Cryovac Food Solutions based in Duncan, S.C. With nearly three decades of experience in the foodservice industry, Gray also has worked as the director of operations for national foodservice chains including Jack in the Box and Taco Time International. You can contact him at [email protected].