NATIONAL REPORT — Convenience stores have taken impressive steps in adapting to the COVID-19 crisis, such as eliminating self-serve, installing plexiglass barriers at checkout, and adopting rigorous cleaning and sanitizing procedures. At the same time, consumers want complete assurance that the food they get from their local c-store is safe to bring into their home or have delivered to their home.
This makes it crucial for c-store operators to have a detailed understanding of transparency and traceability in the supply chain, and a plan to enhance food safety and the consumer experience today and in the future.
"The only thing that's safe to say is our normal is going to be a new normal," said Ryan Yost, vice president and general manager, printer solutions division, for Avery Dennison Corp., who took part in a recent Convenience Store News webcast titled “Enhancing Food Safety and the Consumer Experience in Times of Crisis and Beyond."
Pre-COVID-19, many convenience retail executives felt they had a solid digital strategy planned for the long term, but one that they were not ready to immediately execute, according to Yost. Post-COVID-19, however, analysts project that online grocery sales accounted for 40 percent of the grocery purchases made in April, up from approximately 2 percent to 3 percent of sales prior to the start of the pandemic.
"A substantial move," Yost said of the shift.
Along with online grocery shopping, third-party delivery also has moved from predominantly quick-service restaurants (QSRs) to penetrating all major foodservice channels, which presents both opportunities and challenges.
As consumers move from traditional buying behaviors to new ones, "I think you can see that the space has been quite disrupted," Yost said, adding that more new entrants will be arriving in the convenience space as businesses convert to pickup-only programs.
With consumers increasingly relying on technology to make decisions about food, they're asking multiple questions that are more important to them than ever:
- Is it available?
- Is it fresh, and when will it expire?
- What is in it, and where did it come from?
- Has it been tampered with?
Ensuring food safety in a way that customers can see has been a growing trend, and is receiving even more focus these days. While retailers have had to make short-term adjustments, long-term planning also has never been more critical.
Three areas of challenge, according to Yost, are:
- Serving safe food, which can involve traceability and recall management;
- Creating and protecting one's brand affinity by creating a consistent experience across platforms, and offering tamper-proof packaging and branding even when working with third-party delivery; and
- Focusing on the consumer experience, which can include making it easy to check inventory availability and providing frictionless checkout.
"You don't have to create this space on your own," Yost said. "There are tools available."
For instance, he advises retailers to keep a close eye on how many orders are coming in through a third party vs. their own ordering app, and says they should look into using tamper-evident packaging that incorporates a branding element such as a QR code, which can direct customers to the retailer's own loyalty app.
"It really starts to create the connection," Yost said.
Whatever specific steps retailers determine are the best ones for their business, the most important thing is that they take them.
"Now is not a time to wait and see," Yost said. "Consumer behaviors are changing."
An on-demand replay of this webinar, "Enhancing Food Safety and the Consumer Experience in Times of Crisis and Beyond," is available here.