The Snack Hunters

Convenience retailers urged to land more snack sales by polishing perceptions

Published in CSP Daily News

Keith Boston

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A fundamental shift in consumers' snacking habits should prompt convenience stores to think more strategically about what they put on their foodservice menus, a trio of trend watchers advised attendees of Convenience Retailing University (CRU), which began Tuesday in Glendale, Ariz., and continues through Thursday.

The consideration that should be top of mind, agreed the three, is customer perception. Does a potential new product fit a concept's image? Does it seem too exotic? Too me-too? Is it priced at a level that's perceived to be right?

"If you charge too much for it, people don't want to buy it," said Keith Boston, director of foodservice for Framingham, Mass.-based Cumberland Farms. "If you charge too little, people don't want to buy it because they think something's the matter with it. It's too cheap."

If the operation is targeting consumers hunting for a snack, that pricing sweet spot can't exceed $4, said Kevin Higar, director of research and consulting services for Technomic Inc., the Chicago-based research and consulting firm.

"People are generally going to consider it a snack if it's $4 or less," he said.

The overall perception challenge, Higar asserted, is countering consumers' fixed notion of what foods they will find in a c-store. "If we can get to overcome some of those preconceptions about foodservice, we will have a great opportunity," he said.

Bob Derian, the corporate executive chef for Atlanta-based RaceTrac Petroleum, provided a case history of how his chain developed a new burrito. He described how the home office carefully considered such cues to the customers as how it was packaged ("we went with something that looked handwrapped," he said) and how it was priced (at a level significantly above the burrito it replaced).

The effort could well be worth it, Higar stressed, because the Great Recession proved a lasting boon to snacking. People who survived corporate layoffs and cutbacks found themselves "trying to get 18 things into an hour, whereas before they did five things an hour," he said.

Snacking was a way to sustain their energy and eat without downshifting for a complete meal. "With the exception of the 55-plus [age] group, they're snacking more frequently," said Higar.  "What we saw in 2007, 2008--they're still thinking in those terms."