That's a Mouthful

Technomic dishes up familiar faces and some surprises in latest c-store foodservice retailer study.

By  Abbey Lewis, Executive Editor

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A lot of c-store shoppers leave the store with an empty stomach. That’s what findings from the second annual Technomic study on c-store foodservice show: Significant gaps exist between chains doing a great job and those that aren’t. Many of these gaps exist in areas customers find especially important, factors such as taste, visual appeal and price.

Top performers among the 21 largest national and regional convenience chains in the study—provided exclusively to CSP—include recognized leaders such as Casey’s, RaceTrac, Sheetz, Wawa and[CSP exclusive]both Kwik Trip and QuikTrip, with chains such as Cenex and Holiday Station stores making the grade even though they’re less known in the industry for their foodservice programs.

Using dozens of qualitative metrics, from questions on visual appeal to “craveability,” the Chicago-based research firm surveyed almost 4,000 c-store shoppers to assess the industry’s foodservice.

Data shows both triumph and struggle.“We believe in our mantra: that QuikTrip will become as good in foodservice as we are in the sale of motor fuel and convenience items,” says Mike Thornbrugh, spokesperson for the Tulsa, Okla.-based chain. “It took us a long time to achieve that level [with gas and convenience], and we are not under any false illusion that it won’t take time to achieve the same success in the foodservice category.”

QuikTrip, a formidable convenience retailer on many levels [CSP —March ’13,p. 38], is clearly on track with its foodservice aspirations, with the 648-store chain already hitting top marks in areas of unit appearance, value and visit satisfaction.

Though survey methods rule out direct chain-to-chain comparisons, certain numbers collectively show where the channel stands among its customers. The wider the gap between high and low scores, the more top performers outpaced the competition, particularly in areas that motivated consumers to choose foodservice at c-stores.

For instance, many top-rated motives(“clean restrooms,” for one) showed high-low spread of 20% to 25% or greater. This is compared to “convenient locations,” the No. 2 motive that people chose for c-store foodservice, for which the difference was only 10%.

Glaring disparities existed in the following top-rated motives that consumers say drive their choices:

  • Food taste and flavor;
  • Food visual appeal;
  • Service and hospitality;
  • Ability to provide value through price; and
  • Ability to provide value through high-quality menu items.

Again, what this means, says Tim Powell, principal for Technomic, is that some chains are solidly outperforming others in areas that matter to c-store consumers.

The numbers become more telling when considering that respondents are already frequent customers, Powell says. Researchers assigned survey respondentsa specific chain to review based on which one they said they visited last. “These are your customers,” Powell says. “And still, you’re 25% below [the top-scoring chain]? Imagine if your customer were to walk into a Wawa or Sheetz …”All hope is not lost, though. In many areas, the percentages between chains were close together. “But if you’re well below a top player, these are areas of opportunity,” Powell says.

What People Want

In assessing the data, Powell says the industry needs to focus on why people buy their meal or snack at c-stores vs. restaurants or other quick-service meal options. The Technomic survey identified 34 factors, with the No. 1 both “taste and flavor of the food” and “convenient location,” each receiving collectively 90% of the respondents’ “important” or “very important” votes. In third was “offers a good value through lower prices” (89%),with “service is pleasant and friendly”(88%) at fourth and “quality of the food”(87%) taking fi fth.

At the low end of motivations, “kid friendly” was at 53%, “has a recycling program” at 51%, “décor is up to date” at 48%, “offers limited-time menu items” at 45% and “music selection is appropriate” at the lowest ranking of 36%.

Based on these rankings, says Powell, “A kids’ menu may not be as important.”

Time and again , the disparity between high and low identified strengths and weaknesses. In the area of unit appearance and ambiance, for instance, the gap among retailers was only 14%, which may indicate that, as a group, these chains perform to a common standard. But in the subcategory of clean restrooms, the disparity widens to 26%, with Altoona, Pa.-based Sheet topping the list at 91% and the lowest chain—which CSP respectfully declined to reveal—scoring 65%.

Other big gaps include “food and beverage quality” at 24%, “foodservice/prepared foods variety” at 25% and “I will recommend this store’s prepared foods to family friends and acquaintances” at 30%.

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