Leveraging the Lunch Daypart

Shifts in consumer behavior and daypart traffic are increasingly noticeable and demand attention from convenience store operators. The first step is to recognize the trend, and then realize the opportunity. While the morning meal and afternoon snack dayparts may represent higher total traffic numbers, lunch is showing accelerated growth and new opportunities could serve as a significant catalyst to drive sales for convenience stores.

Technomic is forecasting 2011 to be a growth year, in nominal terms, for convenience store foodservice. This is, in large part, due to the growing prospect of lunchtime, which continues to be a bright spot for convenience stores for the second consecutive year. While other competitive channels are currently flat during lunch, convenience store traffic grew by double digits over the last 12 months, according to the NPD Group/CREST. Ambitious operators can leverage lunch to drive foodservice sales during this key daypart and beyond.

There are several ways to capitalize on the growing lunchtime trend. In fact, most operators currently have the capabilities and offerings at their disposal and simply are not utilizing them.

Much like the breakfast battle has indicated consumers want breakfast all day (or at least until noon), a similar approach should be implemented for convenience store lunch offerings. Lunch isn't just from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Remember, your consumer is anything but conventional or traditional. They are younger men and women who don't want to wait and simply want instant gratification. They have on-the-go lifestyles, might be working alternative shifts and are looking for their lunchtime meal solutions based on their schedule, not your clock.

As a result, lunch foods can often be purchased during the morning meal and afternoon/evening snack dayparts. Moral of the story: your roller grill shouldn't be empty at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. since your consumer keeps his or her own clock. Similarly, your sandwich warmer should be stocked during lunch in addition to breakfast. It is existing real estate that offers customers hot food options -- hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, etc. -- when they want an on-the-go hot meal solution.

Another important element of leveraging lunch is the offering of deals. Deals are critical to continuing to drive traffic and sales. Deals can come in the form of combos and/or discounts and should be well-merchandised, easy to understand and accessible. Create offers within the $3-to-$5 range to hit the meal deal sweet spot and expand consumer purchases beyond just a snack or the standard two hot dogs. By offering any two roller grill items with a soft drink or iced tea, chips and an individual dessert item, you make it a complete meal, which increases consumer satisfaction, loyalty and can drive additional daypart visits.

Convenience store consumers actually spend more and buy more items when purchasing based upon deal offerings, which is not the case in other channels, so dealing can help stores elevate their check averages.

When building your deals, remember to provide transportation solutions when bundles exceed two-handed realities. Offer a meal carrier or tray to make the deal easy for your consumer to manage, understanding your customer needs to get that meal to the register, out the door and, most often, into their car.

To really delight your consumers, take it even further by providing a place to stop, sit and eat. One of the biggest meal offering barriers convenience stores face is the lack of any sort of sitting options. While it is challenging, offering outside tables or even just stools at a counter will help differentiate your store as a foodservice destination and enhance the consumer experience.

For the beverage selection to go with your lunchtime bundle deals, don't forget about coffee. While coffee is king of the breakfast beverages, it is currently riding a wave of growth at lunch. Total convenience store coffee servings have been struggling over the past year, but NPD Group/CREST is reporting category growth during the lunch daypart. This non-traditional daypart growth is being attributed to the rise in coffee consumption by the younger generation, also known as "millennials," and their higher index for lunchtime convenience store visits.

Maintaining a fresh coffee bar beyond breakfast, communicating that availability and incorporating the offering into lunchtime meal deals will help keep the category growing and relevant beyond breakfast, and attract a new and growing consumer base.

Other lunchtime solutions include limited-time offerings (LTOs). They aren't just for beverages. LTOs create promotional opportunities that engage, break through the clutter and provide boredom-busters, reaching current customers and driving increased frequency.

There is ample opportunity to execute a strong LTO program on the roller grill. With premium, seasonal or regional offerings such as pepper jack smoked sausage, beer brats, chorizo and Italian sausage, consumers stay engaged, surprised and enticed. You can lead with your hot dog program and support with additional grill options. In addition to instituting a versatile roller grill program, offer customization with recipes or recommendations for condiments, toppings and more.

Finally, operators can leverage the power of brand recognition with their associated quality and trust to drive trial and establish clientele at lunchtime. Convenience stores have an advantage with their grab-and-go motivators, variety and ample opportunity to build branded programs. With effective merchandising and hot-food expansion, convenience stores can upgrade from just a breakfast or snack stop and become a prepared lunchtime destination.

Operators can map out mealtimes and capitalize on the growing lunchtime trend by identifying and implementing key initiatives and offerings. It is crucial to communicate the value and quality, whether it be with branded merchandising or promotional deals, and "be in business." Understand the consumer behavior with regards to meal expectations and meet the requirements.

A successful lunch program will lead to increased sales, repeat lunch business and hopefully satisfied consumers who will continue to frequent your stores for lunchtime and beyond.

Catherine Porter is the senior customer marketing manager, convenience stores, for Sara Lee. With more than 10 years of experience in creating and implementing marketing plans for food and beverage brands, she offers customer partners impactful consumer insights, and plays an important role in convenience store channel analysis and strategy development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.