To Reach Millennials, Educate

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To Reach Millennials, Educate

By Howland Blackiston, King-Casey - 09/28/2015

"Marketers Obsess Over Millennials" was a recent headline in the New York Times, underscoring the importance of this generation that will account for 50 percent of the U.S. workforce by the end of this year and 75 percent by 2020. Convenience store owners trying to expand their foodservice business are eager to tap into this market, but where to start?

Start by Educating the Customer 

Our research and client experience suggests that education is one important way to differentiate your foodservice offerings. Remember first that millennials (generally considered to be those born from 1978 to 2000) are the best-educated generation in U.S. history.

They thirst to learn, and their easy familiarity with the Internet and social media means that learning is built into every aspect of their daily life. A recent article referred to them as “Generation Why” because they are so curious and inquisitive.

Educated people seek choices and millennials embody this trait: 57 percent compare prices in a store. Educated people are discriminating: one study found that only 32 percent of millennials find brand communications helpful, and 30 percent refuse to read content if it is not educational or entertaining.

A Forbes writer summed it up nicely: "Successful marketers will make sure they feel informed and involved, not just marketed to." This suggests a general retail strategy of brands being educational and informative — the more information available, the better.

Customers should feel they have enough data points about a brand, their products and services to make a wise shopping decision. Remember, millennials like to comparison-shop, and they like to shop brands that are supportive of the causes that are important to them (such as caring about health and wellness, and compassionate about social and environmental issues).

The Role of In-Store Communications

As related to a c-store’s foodservice offerings, printed communications within the store environment play the most critical role in educating customers.

There are many opportunities to educate the customer in the various food-related “customer zones” throughout the store. The trick is to develop communications that are zone-appropriate and are responsive to customer needs and expectations within each of the zones.

For example, if customers are shopping the produce zone, they may want to know more about the freshness, origin and nutritional benefits of your produce. Here is the right zone for educating the customer about a particular food product (e.g., “Local Corn Picked This Morning, Rich in Antioxidants”).

In the “pre-order zone” (where customers line up to place their orders), here is a good place to educate the customer regarding good values, new products or delicious food pairings (e.g., “Save by Pairing Our New Italian Stallion Sandwich with a Tuscany Lemonade”).

The dine-in zone (where customers will spend more time) is the perfect zone for educating the customer about your brand, or perhaps engaging them in a social media interaction.

The key is to pair the right educational message to the right customer zone.

The Role of the Menuboard, Specifically

Here’s a specific area where you can list the facts that really matter to millennials: calorie counts (it will soon be mandatory), plus nutritional details beyond calories, and source of origin.

Be as precise as you can in the latter regard, not just country or even state. The successful Five Guys burger chain lists the specific farm, city and state where they get the potatoes for their fries.

Our clients at Burgerville, a chain in the Pacific Northwest, were way ahead of the game here — for years, their menuboards have highlighted their “Fresh, Local, Sustainable” positioning and recognized their local suppliers of items like Tillamook Creamery cheese, Walla Walla sweet onions and cage-free eggs. They feature (on the menuboard and in other zones throughout the store) seasonable fresh ingredients for their fruit-flavored milkshakes and smoothies (e.g., “Northwest Blackberry is the seasonal fruit in August”).

The Role of Design & the Environment

Printed communications is the most important aspect of millennial education. But store design and the retail environment can also play a role in educating the customer.

The new Starbucks "Clover" brewing system is an educational display zone within the store that allows customers to see and understand how this type of coffee is being brewed. Customers can smell the tantalizing aromas and ask questions about the process and its benefits. Its "edutainment" at its finest.

Within Chipotle Grill's order zone, the display of fresh ingredients visually shows customers that this brand uses really fresh ingredients, while allowing millennials the luxury of customizing their orders.

Whole Foods stores are literally built on the sustainability ethic that millennials cherish. Stores are LEED-certified, using sustainable building materials, LED lighting, efficient HVAC systems and eco-friendly food packaging. In this sense, every zone in the environment is educating the consumer regarding how Whole Foods is making a difference to the environment.

And back at Burgerville, communications within the dine-in zone let customers know the brand is compassionate about the environment, with 100 percent of the stores operating on wind-power.

On the c-store front, the new 7-Eleven stores include produce displays using wooden crates and bushel baskets that visually reinforce the brand’s “fresh from the farm” offerings. Again, it's the design details within these store zones as much the actual communications that educate and influence millennials.

Education Is a Two-Way Street

Millennials grew up in a time when technology exploded. They use their cellphones more than any other generation, particularly on social media to ask friends for advice before making a decision, such as which restaurants to visit and what to eat once they arrive.

These traits certainly argue that brands should be active across the spectrum of social media, finding fun and creative ways to engage the customer outside of the actual in-store experience.

Equally importantly, when you marry millennials’ technological savvy with their desire to have their opinions heard, you create a terrific opportunity for leading edge c-store operators to install electronic feedback mechanisms in their restaurant areas. This action will recognize and gratify millennials, as well as providing real-time market research for the operator.

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News