Convenience Retailers Master Foodservice Marketing

From limited-time offers to billboards, c-store chains are getting the word out about their high-quality food offerings to boost profits.
A selection of different burgers at Rutter's

NATIONAL REPORT — Foodservice is a huge category for convenience store operators because it offers the opportunity for high margins and more profit to the bottom line. Many c-store retailers, from single-store operators to large chains, continue to invest in this category with high-end offerings, made-to-order items and proprietary programs. Creating and executing strategic marketing plans are crucial for both awareness and growth in foodservice.

"Foodservice marketing possesses unique characteristics that set it apart from marketing in other categories," said Philip Santini, senior director of advertising and foodservice at Rutter's, the York, Pa.- based operator of 86 convenience stores. 

"It involves appealing to multiple senses, including taste and smell, making sensory experience pivotal in food purchase decisions. Menus frequently change due to seasonal ingredients, culinary trends and customer preferences, necessitating adaptable marketing strategies," he explained. "Food holds strong emotional and cultural associations, with marketers often leveraging nostalgia and cultural significance to connect with customers."

However, even before marketing plans are created and deployed, quality and consistency must be considered or any marketing will not be effective, according to Anita Nelson, president of IN Food Marketing and Design, a full-service advertising agency based in Minneapolis that specializes in the food industry. Retailers need to offer high-quality food and "do everything they can to keep the area clean and the food fresh," she emphasized.

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"Ambiance and service quality are critical in foodservice, creating lasting memories for customers," echoed Santini. "Operational efficiency is closely tied to foodservice marketing as it must align with the program's capacity to consistently deliver quality and service as promised."

[Read more: CSN EXCLUSIVE: Convenience Retailers Score With Sports Marketing Initiatives]

Another unique aspect of foodservice marketing is the ability for retailers to capture multiple visits a day by customers by daypart, whether it's a breakfast sandwich in the morning, a made-to-order sub at lunch or a take-home meal for dinner. Retailers can capitalize on the various dayparts by targeting radio and mobile ads around what they offer, Nelson said.

"The category also offers the opportunity for retailers to upsell by pairing other in-store items with foodservice items, such as chips and beverages," she added.

Winning Strategies

When spreading the word about foodservice offerings, begin with existing store customers, either encouraging them to add an item to their existing basket or visit during a new daypart, advised Ed Burcher, a partner at Business Accelerator Team, based in Phoenix.

"One of the first things to increase sales and profits is getting people to come more often, which is absolutely easier than getting someone in who doesn't use the store," he noted. "Know your customer and offer digital coupons or sampling of lunch during breakfast."

Finding a marketing strategy that works for c-store foodservice depends on a number of factors and can differ depending on the store, location and demographic. Retailers must know who their customers are and the characteristics of the local communities their store serves in order to create a marketing program that works, according to Burcher.

"I've seen many parts of the country and many different offers, and I wish there was a silver bullet, but it depends on where you are located, who you are competing with and who you are marketing to," he said. "In the Mid-Atlantic, outdoor events are a wonderful way to make people aware of your offering. In other parts of the country, this doesn't exist and billboards are the way to go. In some cases, print and newspapers are still the best option. From old school to digital, all of them can work, but you need to understand your market."

Getting people aware of the offerings and then getting them to try them are the first steps of any good foodservice marketing strategy, said Burcher. It should be based on a customer's journey and could include a highway billboard, pumptoppers, video at the pump or clings on the store windows.

Additionally, when it comes to marketing foodservice items, eliciting an emotional response is key to attracting customers, which is why Burcher is a proponent of in-store sampling. Similar to when a large brand such as Hershey's or Frito-Lay launches a new item and puts money behind it to gain awareness — and the c-store becomes an avenue for trial of that product — this should be done with new food items as well, he urged.

"Offering samples and interacting with the customers are great options, especially for newly launched items, whether limited-time offers, a new flavor or a new breakfast sandwich," Burcher explained.

In addition to sampling, using high-quality photos on all marketing materials, social media and in-store menus is important to convey the quality of an item, as well as elicit the emotional response needed for people to crave an item, Nelson said.

Rutter's introduces limited-time offers every quarter. For example, in July 2023, the chain introduced Kickin' Chicken and Waffles, the Donut Breakfast, and Grilled Mac and Cheese. In October, the retailer launched the Hangover Burger, Mexican Pizza and Loaded Pierogies.

"Introducing limited-time offers is a way for Rutter's to regularly unveil fresh and captivating dishes, and keep customers engaged and eager to return for these limited-time delights," Santini said, noting that they are often linked to seasons, holidays or special occasions. "The limited time nature of these items instills a sense of urgency, compelling customers to savor them before they vanish from the menu, ultimately boosting sales during the promotional period."

Offering a limited-time item can also serve as a test for a new product that may eventually become a permanent menu item depending on demand, he pointed out.

The key to marketing these items is "a concise and engaging message" that highlights key details such as what the offer is, why it's unique and when it will be available, according to Santini. From there, Rutter's creates promotional materials such as kiosk images, videos for its in-store television displays, and social media images and copy.

Putting forth promotions and deals on foodservice items — particularly new introductions — is another way to drive sales in this category, whether it's launching a new breakfast sandwich for $1 or offering a free item with a purchase, said Burcher.

"Presenting exclusive promotions on a curated range of our bestselling food items has proven to be a highly effective strategy for spotlighting our foodservice program," Santini echoed, pointing to Rutter's loyalty program as a vehicle for this as well.

"The introduction of our loyalty program adds an extra layer of motivation for customers to frequent our establishment regularly, offering enticing incentives such as discounts and fuel rewards."

Nelson cautions retailers to remember that marketing shouldn't just be limited to in-store.

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