C-stores are being left behind in food to go says Siân Harrington

Convenience retailers are failing to tap into the burgeoning food to go opportunity, and are being left far behind by the likes of Starbucks and Pret a Manger.

The UK has the most highly developed on-the-go market in Europe with 22% of eating occasions on the move compared with an EU average of 16%, according to Datamonitor.

And consumers are increasingly buying food on the go. A Busy Lives survey by HI Europe reveals that nearly half of respondents needing to refuel during the day rarely or never plan ahead, looking to grab a drink and bite wherever they can.

But c-store operators’ paranoia over wastage and price mean snacks and sandwiches are not off the starting blocks.

“People are looking at foodservice and snacking as if it is some very difficult category to manage, when in reality it is just about committing some resource,” says Mike Greene, chief executive of Harris International Marketing (HIM), which last week ran a forum to debate the issue.

When delegates were asked to name credible food to go offers, names such as Boots, M& S, Upper Crust and Pret came out on top. C-stores were notably absent.

Research by HIM shows three in every four shoppers who wanted to buy a sandwich in an independent c-store left without one, while one in 10 shoppers across the convenience channel failed to buy a snacking product (The Grocer October 30, p17). HIM’s research also shows that 10% of shoppers buy a sandwich in a c-store but 60% say they would consider doing so. However, average spend on snacks is less than shoppers intended on entering the store, thanks mainly to out of stocks. And one in three shoppers would give their store no more than three chances if it were out of stock of a sandwich filling or type.

“The sandwich is a critical factor in whether the consumer uses your store for snacking,” says Greene. “And the danger is that all this lost opportunity is going to the foodservice operators. They are growing through the vacuum created by c-stores’ failure to satisfy needs. We are not seeing anyone in the c-sector who is getting close to Starbucks or Pret a Manger.”

Hugh Arnott, retail services manager at the Association of Convenience Stores, says c-stores need to overhaul their food to go offer. “You get sandwiches wrapped in clingfilm that frankly don’t look good. Places like Pret make it feel as if the sandwich has been made just for you.”

Filling and bread choices are also poor in convenience, where price still dominates decision-making. Yet Tesco recently announced that its top-selling sandwich is Chicken Caesar Salad Wrap, knocking egg and cress off the number one spot.

“The day of the 99p entry price for sandwiches has gone,” says Phil Eastham, senior commercial manager sales and marketing centre at Ginsters. “The future is about quality, trust and brand. But at the moment the variance is huge. And when it comes to hot food you question how long it has been sitting around. Perhaps retailers could introduce a ticket to stick on the product which says when it was made and how long it has been on shelf.”

Forum delegates also agreed credibility is essential to a food to go offer. “Credibility is the most important factor,” says Richard McKie, category marketing manager at Warburtons. “Once location, credibility and availability are right, you can then look at other elements.”

Among these, believes Gavin Aley, store sales and marketing manager at Thresher, the next competitive advantage is merchandising by time of day. “It doesn’t need to be complex. It may be just about turning a ready-merchandised fixture around to face one way in the morning and the other in the evening.”

Greene believes suppliers could help fund an education campaign to show that food to go is not a complex area for convenience chains. Otherwise, he says, foodservice operators will continue to steal a march.

Could do better
>>how C-Stores could get going
  • Have a core range of sandwiches, say 10, with five others that change regularly to give variety

  • Promote a sandwich of the week

  • Operators located near schools could introduce meal packs for children

  • Slicing sandwiches into quarters, not halves, will make it easier for consumers who plan to eat in their car

  • Packaging needs to look more enticing and be easier to hold. One container could hold a sandwich and coffee

  • Develop solutions for nearby offices - perhaps office-sized trays and delivery as has been introduced by Pret a Manger

  • For hot food, tie up with a specialist supplier. A specialist can keep developing the menu so you can offer a core hot food range but also introduce variety

  • Shout about the freshness of the product