When to play it safe, when to get adventurous
[Editor's Note: This is the third entry in a series of articles addressing the state of foodservice in retail outlets.]
OAK BROOK, Ill. -- When it comes to menu offerings, the key word for 2013 is "caution." There are new flavors coming down the pike, but based on purchasing behavior, convenience store customers still tend to prefer basics.
Mark DiDomenico of Datassential said the key to the new is the old. "When you think about adventure and food, there's new and different and then there's a combination of things that also result in something new," he told CSP Daily News.
According to DiDomenico, one of the best recent examples of this trend is Taco Bell's Doritos Locos Tacos. By combining Doritos with a standard taco, the company took two old things and had one of the most successful product launches in its history.
"[It's] not terribly cutting edge, but you've got to hand it to them--Taco Bell knew their consumer," DiDomenico said. "Even playing on that side of the culinary fence, they still were able to come up with something new and innovative. I think c-stores can play in that realm as well."
One easy win is food quality. David Morris of Kaleidoscope Research Consulting said that while product quality has improved over the last several years, it's still an area of needed growth.
"C-stores compete very well on price," Morris told CSP Daily News. "Where they need to continue to innovate is on quality and health."
And while quality is king, convenience still informs the menu. Chicken, for example, is more important in the grocery sector no doubt due to the prevalence of rotisserie chicken, but it's morphing into grab-and-go forms such as chicken strips, bites, tenders and nuggets for the c-store.
"The challenge it has is the portable part of it," Tim Powell of Technomic said. "You can't eat with one hand and drive--I mean, you can, but it's kind of messy."
Pizza is one food that's always been convenient. Bonnie Riggs of the NPD Group said while the traditional neighborhood pizza joint is still the gorilla in the room, it has lost notable market share. Pizza at retail has grown by almost 50% in the last five years alone.
"They have increased their share quite a bit," Riggs said. "In 2007, their share of total pizza serving within the whole industry was 5%. In 2012 it's 7%. That's quite a shift."
Right now, c-store operators say that the roller grill is the second-most-important piece of equipment, second only to the microwave, according to a retailer survey by Technomic. But customers claim they want "freshness." How to reconcile these two facts? Powell said it's as simple as providing freshness cues. By swapping out inventory frequently and placing signs indicating which items are ready to go and which ones still need some time, operators are showing that someone's taking care of business.
"You can still have fresh on the roller grill," Powell said. "It shows that you're paying attention to it. They've been able to get past that 'dog on the roller grill for four days' [perception]."
Sandwiches are one format where newer flavors are becoming trendy. DiDomenico said operators are increasingly willing to experiment.
"To me, if an operator's looking to offer something a little bit more high end, to be able to throw capicola or sorpressata on a sandwich, that's an option," DiDomenico said.
But ultimately, smart operators aren't pushing the envelope too much. Introducing new flavors into old favorites is the safest way to win over new fans while keeping the old.
"What I would tell all the operators," DiDomenico said, "is to know your traffic."