How to Infuse Freshness & Health into Your Offer

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How to Infuse Freshness & Health into Your Offer

By Maureen Azzato - 04/20/2015

“Fresh” is the key to future convenience store foodservice growth, and it should be a brand positioning and marketing driver for operators serious about the prepared food business. Today’s c-store customer expects and seeks fresh food, yet that doesn’t necessarily translate to them ordering healthier fare.

It’s probably more helpful to look at “fresh” and “healthy” attributes separately because they are not interchangeable, according to Convenience Store News’ How To Crew of foodservice experts. For example, fried chicken can be made fresh daily from never-frozen poultry, but it’s not healthy. Likewise, although a frozen, organic low-fat entrée may be healthy, it is not fresh.

In fact, at this juncture in convenience stores, most experts say freshness should take center stage over healthy. While offering healthy menu options today is a good idea, it will become increasingly important in the future as Millennials — the 18- to 34-year-old health-conscious and clean-label-seeking demographic group — become the next generation of parents.

“Healthy is a lot tougher to do than fresh,” one How To Crew expert said. “Freshness continues to play more and more of a role. Almost everything we do now has freshness in mind. Once customers start seeing ‘fresh,’ they will begin to believe it as long as they don’t purchase something that is not fresh. Putting the word ‘fresh’ on a poor quality item can have a very negative effect.”

So, how should a convenience store operator go about communicating freshness in its offering? Start by offering fresh food options such as whole fruit, cut fruit, salads, yogurt, fresh-baked pastries and cookies, etc., and communicate and merchandise freshness heavily.

“Some of this is sensory, like a fresh baking aroma that could be as simple as making fresh cookies,” another How To Crew member explained. Another idea is “open kitchens so customers can see how and by whom their food is being prepared. Use as many fresh touchpoints as possible from cutting ingredients to stirring, mixing, assembly of food, fresh breads, and using ovens instead of microwaves. The rest is image and things that would easily be associated with a restaurant, including trade dress, color schemes, photos and attractive menus.”

Fresh-food graphics and merchandising are key to conveying the “right freshness message,” according to Maurice Minno, principal of MPM Consulting Group and CSNews How To Crew member. “One of the best ways for c-store operators to make believers out of their customers is to walk the talk.”

Operators, according to Minno, should:

  • Incorporate bold fresh-food merchandising (food displays, graphics, photography and story board messaging, etc.) that engages as many customer senses as possible — sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.
  • Constantly change and innovate their fresh-food merchandising displays.
  • Offer new fresh and healthy fast foods (snacks and entrees) “that scream both fresh and healthy,” such as a bountiful display of fresh apples, bananas or pears; packaged fresh refrigerated snacks such as Crunch Pak’s Dipperz tart or sweet sliced apples with a caramel dip or peanut butter; Chiquita’s Bites or Ready Pak’s Ready Snax; or a variety of fruit, cheese and flatbread crackers, etc.
  • Use creative merchandising props and tactics that boldly make the statement that you are in the fresh and healthy foods business. Your merchandising should demonstrate your capabilities as a leading fresh foodservice merchant.
  • Regularly sample new fresh and healthy fast-food offers to customers. Ensure the sampling program is delivered by store teams who have been properly trained on the program as well as the specific food offers, and possess solid knowledge of and enthusiasm for the new products.

“If a c-store retailer is not offering a fresh and healthy-oriented foodservice menu, this typically means they are providing the same generic me-too offer that every other c-store retailer in their immediate competitive sphere is providing,” Minno said. “That means the only competitive advantage these c-store retailers have vs. their direct competition is based on price — retailing all of the same generic products, but at lower, less profitable price points.”

For leading companies willing to invest the time, energy and dollars, fresh and health can be important competitive differentiators, according to the CSNews How To Crew experts.

“The biggest trick is not to upset your core customer who comes in and spends $5 to $10 a day three or five times a week, just to hopefully lure in a consumer who may want a yogurt parfait once a month,” one How To Crew retailer noted. “The best way to balance it is by trying to make everything more healthy, but making sure it still has very high acceptance to the core customer.”

How do you strike that balance? “Really promote the ‘fresh’ image with signage and POP [point-of-purchase] and then sprinkling in some healthy items,” the retailer added. “All stores are a good target for fresh, however healthy depends on your customer traffic. For example, adding fruit to a store that has poor morning traffic can add up to a lot of spoilage and little recognition from customers.”

In another example of how to promote fresh, this retailer pointed to a fried chicken program, not typically considered healthy. “Fried chicken isn’t healthy, but fresh fried chicken is the best,” he said, noting that an operator can increase the health quotient of fried chicken by letting customers know with signage on the hot case that the chicken is fried in trans-fat-free oil. “Now, that ‘fresh’ fried chicken becomes slightly more appealing to a health-conscious consumer.”

A POINT OF DIFFERENCE

While it may seem counterintuitive to offer fresh and healthy fast food — even if it’s just the perception of healthy and fresh — fast-casual restaurants such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bakery cafés, Au Bon Pain and others have been doing it for ages.

“The key is supporting customer perceptions of fresh,” said How To Crew expert Mathew Mandeltort, corporate foodservice manager for distributor Eby-Brown Co. “Subway is a perfect example. Subway built an empire based on consumers’ perceptions of how fresh Subway’s sandwiches were made, with its ‘Eat Fresh’ advertising campaign, despite the fact Subway’s sandwiches are made entirely from processed deli meat.”

The key, he added, is consistently communicating your fresh message. “If nothing else, you want to carve out a ‘fresh’ haven in your store that will help create a ‘fresh’ halo for other items by using the right packaging, the right phrases, the right ingredients and employing ‘fresh foodservice’ practices.”

Healthy offerings are important because they communicate that retailers care for their customers’ well-being. However, when dining out, indulgence and convenience win out over healthy eating, which is more typically done at home, Mandeltort said, pointing to some recent statistics from foodservice consultancy and research company Technomic:

  • Forty-one percent of consumers consider their eating behavior at home to be very healthy. In comparison, fewer than half as many consumers (16 percent) said the same about their away-from-home consumption behavior.
  • Forty-nine percent of consumers prefer to eat healthier at home and indulge more when dining out.
  • When asked about the last 10 times they purchased food from a restaurant, consumers reported they consider nearly six out of 10 of those meals (57 percent) to be “unhealthy.”

Healthy also is more complex than fresh because different customer segments and demographics have different perceptions about healthy. For example, older customers might want low cholesterol, low calorie and low salt foods, while younger customers might want locally-sourced, organic or sustainable fare “that might be off the charts” from a calorie perspective, Mandeltort said.

“Consider a fully loaded Chipotle steak burrito, which has almost 1,300 calories, 61 grams of fat and 2,620 milligrams of sodium in it,” he said. “The company has managed to steer full attention to its antibiotic- and hormone-free, non-GMO, grass-fed organic food to create a healthy, better-for-you halo. But that burrito accounts for half the calories an adult is supposed to have per day, a full day’s worth of fat and more than a day’s worth of sodium.”

Healthy is tricky because it’s clearly “in the eye of the beholder.” It all comes down to knowing your customer and delivering the right options for them to consider.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

While it may not be for everyone, c-store retailers can be known for bringing to market a fresh and healthy fast-food offering with the right strategic commitment and support, according to Minno.

For those that want to take the plunge, he recommends the following steps:

  • Fully understand your customers, who they are (their profiles), and the needs and expectations they have from your stores, especially in terms of a healthy, fresh, fast-food offer.
  • Recognize how your customers shop in your stores on their specific “use occasions.” Understand their experiences in your stores and the path(s) they take on each of their shopping occasions.
  • Become an avid student of your stores’ competitive retail landscape by conducting disciplined, regular benchmarking of both your direct c-store competitors as well as all other retailers offering fresh and healthy fast food (fast feeders, mass merchandisers, grocery stores, etc.).
  • Identify and study the best-of-the-best healthy and fresh fast-food retailers. What is their offer? How specifically do they bring their offer to market (i.e. positioning in store, merchandising, graphics and offer communications)? What in-store fresh and healthy fast-food customer experiences are they delivering? How are they positioned to sustain this offer?

How do you know if your store/market is a good target for a healthy food offering?

“A c-store operator’s customer demographic and customer-use profiles may well be the same across all of the chain’s stores,” Minno said. “More likely, however, a c-store retailer will have store clusters that will have some of the same core customer demographic and customer-use profiles that could be positioned for offering a healthy and fresh food offer.”

Don’t make the mistake, though, of indiscriminately placing healthy items on store shelves and in food cases without thinking the program through from beginning to end. A half-hearted attempt that lacks commitment “is going to be transparent to customers,” Mandeltort said.

“You need a strong well-defined fresh/healthy message that spans in-store marketing, local store marketing, social media, packaging, labeling, etc. It’s really about developing a ‘fresh’ sub-brand.”

And while most industry players acknowledge more consumers — especially women — would patronize convenience stores with greater frequency if healthy, better-for-you options were made available, this will become more imperative in the future as Millennials come of age. A recent report in USA Today, “Millennials Crave Convenience Stores Most of All,” indicates this important demographic is using c-stores as a dining option due to one primary factor: convenience.

“Turns out that what you’ve heard and read about Millennials trading up from fast-food chains such as McDonald’s for fast-casual chains such as Chipotle is only half true,” the article stated, based on research USA Today conducted in partnership with The NPD Group. “The other half: Even more Millennials are trading down for food at convenience stores.”

In fact, it turns out that convenience stores are nearly twice as important to Millennials when compared to fast-casual restaurants, according to the report, and their convenience store shopping frequency has been increasing every year since 2006.

“Combined with their predilection for eating healthy, Millennials are clearly one of the primary drivers of healthy offerings for now and the foreseeable future,” in all food venues, Mandeltort concluded.