Offering fresh, delicious meals and snacks is only half of the equation of foodservice success for convenience stores. Just as important is the strategic use and combination of marketing tools to satisfy hungry patrons.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
In a February, 2018 research report, global consulting firm AlixPartners found encouraging news for food-forward retailers. The report revealed that foodservice is the primary reason for consumers’ in-store visits. In fact, c-store is the fastest-growing foodservice segment, taking share from others such as quick-service restaurants (QSR) and grocery stores.
Still, there is a lot of room for growth in the c-store foodservice sector, explained Molly Harnischfeger, a director in the restaurants, hospitality and leisure practice at AlixPartners. Only one-quarter of the consumers polled for the study said that they would be likely to try new food offerings from places that have not traditionally sold food. Half of those polled said they would be unlikely and another 25% said they were indifferent.
Sixty-five percent of those consumers who said they would not try the food offerings were baby boomers. Two-thirds of Millennials said they would be likely or indifferent to trying the new items. Reaching such a diverse consumer population requires a multi-pronged approach employing a variety of marketing tools, Harnischfeger said.
“One major factor for all groups is being in front of them when they’re making food decisions,” said Harnischfeger. “That makes in-store and pumptop signage and sampling some of the most effective ways to move the needle.”
Kent Kwik Convenience Stores, with 44 locations primarily in Texas and one each in New Mexico and Oklahoma, uses sampling both inside and at the pumps to encourage foodservice trial and showcase new items.
“When we sample at the pump, we usually see about a 20% lift in our foodservice sales that lasts about 60 days before it levels out,” said Meredith Bright, Kent Kwik’s director of corporate communications and brand development.
Ideally, said Bright, the stores would sample at the pumps continuously, rotating every eight weeks between limited-time-offer (LTO) items, either something brand new or a returning favorite such as street tacos, and ones that are available every day. The everyday items may be specially priced such as two breakfast burritos for $3.
“We tried featuring items for shorter periods such as four weeks instead of eight but found that it takes at least a few weeks for people to catch on that we have freshly-made food inside,” Bright said. “The eight-week period also makes it easier to justify the cost of signage and other advertising.”
The only thing that keeps the stores from sampling all the time is a shortage of staff to stand outside and interact with customers.
“But we know it’s important to build brand awareness and drive traffic into our stores,” said Bright.
Inside the stores, bright, colorful signage featuring food items and ingredients with the tag line “Food Made Fresh” echoes the overall foodservice quality message and highlights any new products and/or special pricing. At two of the Kent Kwik stores that have made-to-order pizzas on their menus, the company posted large signs in the front windows calling out this offering. Bright said that this yielded a 40% lift in pizza sales at the stores.
“It’s important that we remind them of the quality and value of our foodservice while they’re inside the stores making their purchasing decisions,” Bright said.
Although QuikTrip convenience stores have tried sampling foodservice products at the pump, inside- the-store sampling seems to be more effective, according to Mike Thornbrugh, vice president of marketing for the chain, which has 779 locations in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.
“Inside the store, customers also get a visual of our new kitchen equipment and on-site food preparation,” Thornbrugh said. “That visual reinforces our message of freshness.”
An exception to the inside-the-store sampling strategy is QuikTrip’s support of high-profile community events with food donations. On July 4, for example, the company sampled some of its specialties at a major fundraiser for families of fallen and disabled military service members.
Also, donating foods to events embraced by the surrounding community is an effective way to get the products into consumers’ hands and minds, said Bright.
“We reached a lot of people and got some great response when we donated breakfast burritos to a recent three-day ‘Rock the Desert’ event,” she said.
Pump-N-Pantry, which has 15 locations over six northeastern Pennsylvania counties, offers food-centric support for a wide range of community events from donating pizza for “National Night Out” celebrations bringing police and citizens together, to operating a hot dog cart and donating the proceeds to a local Chamber of Commerce, to sponsoring a coffee cart that school children run to teach them social and business skills.
“In the long run, our participation pays off not only by establishing Pump-N-Pantry as a good neighbor, but we hear people say things like, ‘I was at the Bridgewater event and had your subs there—I didn’t know you had subs,’” said Wade Robinson, the chain’s food service supervisor and digital marketing manager.
AlixPartners’ Harnischfeger pointed to social media as a good way to reach Millennials. While only 24% of total consumers said they follow their favorite food establishments online, 41% of Millennials said they do.
The use of social media, particularly Facebook, has “changed drastically” for Kent Kwik over the past couple of years.
“Before, we would post on the fly every once in a while, but had no consistent presence,” Bright said. “Now we put a big focus on it, posting two or three times a week and responding to Yelp and Google reviews, and believe it is building awareness of our food and fresh ingredients.”
QuikTrip promotes its foodservice on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as well as on its own app. With its QT Card, customers can accumulate points toward fresh food product purchases.
Robinson attributes at least part of the “really good first half of the year we’ve had with our foodservice” to the debut of two new marketing tools—digital menu boards and online ordering.
Last year, the stores completed their conversion from static menu boards to digital ones.
“When we used the static boards, we rarely changed the photos,” said Robinson. “Using inexpensive televisions, we can now show our customers the wide range of our food products with a constantly changing slide show.”
The digital boards also make it easy to change prices to promote special deals, he said.
Kent Kwik is also rolling out digital menu boards to 12 of its stores with delis, Bright said. The company tested the boards in a handful of locations, she said, and customers responded well, especially to the made-to-order items that were promoted on them.
Last April, Pump-N-Pantry introduced online ordering in 10 stores and, since then, has noticed a major increase in incremental sales of items such as the addition of double meat and bacon to sandwiches and breadsticks with pizza orders.
“In stores where we never sold any breadsticks, all of a sudden every other order includes them,” Robinson said. “The suggestive selling works; customers just need to know what we offer.”
Advertisements with coupons in free local shopping guides, which are distributed to residents in the stores’ market areas have been working well for Pump-N-Pantry for more than 20 years. The strategy has undergone various tweaking over that time.
Last year, Pump-N-Pantry stuck with high-value buy-one-get-one-free on pizza and subs. This year, the company is “mixing it up a bit” with a $2 off any large pizza offer.
A trade agreement with a popular local country music station exchanges fuel for air time with Pump-N-Pantry. The company sponsors the weather report and gets commercials on the channel at various times throughout the day.
Kent Kwik is in the process of wrapping its food distribution center trucks with food photos to turn them into mobile billboards. The company currently has three trucks that deliver fresh food to the stores daily.
Convenience is the message to which a growing number of foodservice consumers respond, global consulting firm AlixPartners discovered in a February, 2018 research report. This year, 41% said that they pick up food when they are already gas and/or grocery shopping and it is easier to pick up these items. That number almost doubled from last year.
Price is less of a factor than last year when 56% of foodservice consumers said these ready-to-eat meals were cheaper. This year, price was the primary factor for only 35%.
According to Mike Thornbrugh, vice president of marketing for QuikTrip convenience stores, consumers in his company’s stores respond most strongly to messages of freshness and quality ingredients.
“Considerations such as quick in and out and competitive pricing are important, but, beyond everything, consumers want the food to look and taste good,” said Thornbrugh. “That’s the primary message we promote with our marketing.”