By Tim Powell, Vice President of Consulting, Q1 Food and Beverage Practice
As c-stores continue to develop foodservice programs, putting themselves in more direct competition with traditional foodservice operators, c-store operators and suppliers need to constantly consider issues regarding consumer perceptions about the stereotypical c-store. One of the most important of these issues is foodservice packaging and the “halo effect” it has on a c-store’s overall foodservice image.
My work with the segment shows that many c-stores with successful foodservice programs put nearly as much focus on packaging as the food itself when developing new products.
For example, as part of a complete overhaul of their hot food program, a large and prominent c-store chain on the east coast spends 30-40% of its product development time determining the type packaging that will function best and present the food most appealingly.
This comes off the heels of McDonald’s announcing in January 2016 that it rolled out “cups, bags and food containers with a basic-but-bold new look aimed at appealing to design-conscious Millennials” to approximately 15,000 stores.
From a broad perspective however, most c-stores are still in the early stages of executing and expanding foodservice programs – such as consistently offering restaurant-quality food. Yet packaging is also a critical piece in shopper selection and quality perception. Consumers often “buy” with their eyes (in the grab-and-go sections particularly) and develop opinions on the food quality depending on how well the packaging protects and retains the kitchen-quality when eating it.
Consumers tend to rate the packaging at c-stores “not as good” as QSRs. Some of these sentiments are due to our observations of the overall foodservice consumer:
- Consumers look for packaging that is functional and durable. This means, for example, lids and containers fit, material doesn’t leak and the packaging keeps items warm or cold, depending on the product. Plus, consumers are more likely to be eating food on-the-go, meaning a burrito eaten while driving shouldn’t drip or spill.
- A strong brand image on the takeout packaging materials can lend credibility to a foodservice offering, as noted in the McDonald’s example. Bold, simple statements also serve as a “silent salesperson” for c-stores as shoppers go on with their day.
- Eco-friendly packaging tells a story that the c-store is serious about social responsibility. Removing foam packaging (if not illegal already) and using from-recycled materials or materials that can be recycled, for example, takes a cue from the on-trend fast casual segment.
The primary take-away from this piece is the packaging (or vessel for carrying the food) should be considered together during product development. No matter how highly-demanded a fried chicken sandwich might be, for example, if it is soggy and damp upon consumption, the product – not the packaging – and often the c-store, become the culprit.