Do You Smell That? Experts Talk Power of Scents, More at Convenience Stores

Getting customers to salivate for food requires understanding their needs, journeys, pain points, sensory experiences
Rachel Toner and Peter Rasmussen at CSP's C-Store Foodservice Forum
Photograph by CSP Staff

Getting convenience-store customers to salivate for one’s food and beverage programs is a multilayered strategy.

This insight came from Rachel Toner, founder and technical director of Chalfont, Pennsylvania-based Taste Strategy, who presented with Peter Rasmussen, founder and CEO of Convenience and Energy Advisors, St. Petersburg, Florida, last week at the 2024 CSP C-Store Foodservice Forum in Schaumburg, Illinois. Their talk was titled Is Your Food and Beverage Program Worth Salivating For?

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The pair said that growing foodservice sales requires maximizing ingredients while minimizing costs via fresh, trending offerings; appealing smells; clean amenities—and a solid strategy to get customers inside from the pump.

“It is very, very, very difficult to get someone to salivate, especially through photos, and you think about convenience retail—we are always pursuing photos and describing products,” Toner said.

Food and beverage is a multisensory experience, Toner said. “And the research shows it is difficult to get people to salivate. In some cases, it takes consumer empathy, and to get people to think about that consumer empathy you have to think about the way that our customers are engaging with our products.”

“When I think about foodservice programs, especially in convenience stores, it’s not a single department job.”

To win in food and beverage programs, retailers must ask themselves how well they are engaging with their consumers to understand their needs, their journeys, their pain points and their sensory experiences when they're consuming the retailer’s food and beverages, Toner said.

With that, Toner showed videos of c-store customers saying the three words that come to mind when they think about food and beverages at c-stores. Some responses:

  • Cheap, fast, convenience
  • Value, efficiency, fast
  • Cheap, convenient, easy
  • Fast, quick, easy
  • Fast, ready, cheap
  • Cheap, affordable, decent
  • Quick, accessible, affordable

After the videos, Toner said, “That’s pretty impactful, right? Hearing it straight from the consumer. And the themes pulled from those videos aligned perfectly from what we see with the quantitative data. We’re seeing people want speed, and they think of pricing value. … What we have to realize is that in convenience, retail, quick and good do not need to be mutually exclusive.”

Retailers have to worry about fresh, trending offerings and trends that are progressing faster and faster—and having the right smells.

“Smells. When consumers enter your store, it’s like entering someone’s house. …  When they enter your stores, is it clean? Is it open? Or is it like walking into a casino? This is an entire sensory experience for them. It’s important to understand what they're going through.”

“Free works. Deep discounts work. Fifteen percent probably is not going to do much for you.”

Toner added that “the reality is our consumers are not thinking about us in the way we think they are,” and to get their attention “is through creating an exceptional and memorable experience.”

Toner then played a video of consumers earlier this year talking about the factors that impact their decisions to buy food and beverages from c-stores. Some responses:

  • Don’t want it to look dried out
  • Taste
  • Affordable and healthy-ish
  • The smell and look; is the store a little more grungy?
  • Look for price, quantity, unique, size of the product
  • Price and options

“What this means the customer is always right,” Toner said. “Their needs are driving our development decisions.”

Toner then turned to turned to four foodservice must-haves:

  • Safe
  • Fulfilling. “If you have something in your store that isn’t fulfilling a need, it shouldn’t be there,” she said.
  • Fast
  • Affordable

Once the retailer has those four things, the three differentiators are the:

  • Customer experience. Develop and set great sensory expectations, Toner said. “What are they going through when they shop at your retail store?”
  • Assortment
  • Taste and quality

Rasmussen then took over, discussing marketing, advertising and the path to purchase.

“When I think about foodservice programs, especially in convenience stores, it’s not a single department job,” he said. “It goes to your social media, to your advertising, to category management, and it even links with fuel.”

Other aspects to this are investing in signage as well as direct mail.

“Believe it or not, I love direct mail,” he said. “Free works. Deep discounts work. Fifteen percent probably is not going to do much for you.”

Retailers also must wow their customers through taste, quality and packaging—and then bring customers back to the store.

One way to do this is via loyalty programs, where a retailer can expect 18% to 30% more spend and one extra trip per week from members, he said.

“I would say that sounds great, but dream bigger beyond that,” Rasmussen said. “Loyalty programs outside of our industry perform better, particularly travel.”

Also in loyalty, the top 10% of loyalty members account for:

  • 56% of all loyalty visits
  • 59% of all in-store c-store loyalty purchases

At c-stores, the top performers achieve one in three transactions via loyalty programs.

With texting, Rasmussen said, “Don’t be annoying. Twice a week at the most.”

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