CHICAGO — Although premium and made-to-order foodservice has taken flight in convenience stores in recent years, retailers continue to struggle to garner profits during the final meal of the day.
Less than one-fifth (17%) of total convenience-store foodservice occasions during this year’s first fiscal quarter came during dinner, according to the Q1 2020 C-Store Consumer Marketbrief by CSP sister research firm Technomic, Chicago. Snacking (37%), lunch (24%), and breakfast (23%) all outpaced the evening daypart, signaling a need for retailers to increase traction during dinner.
“Dinner is the single hardest daypart for us, as an industry, to capture,” said Steve Montgomery, president of c-store consultancy b2b Solutions LLC, Lake Forest, Ill. “Some do it well, but most retailers struggle with dinner, partly because c-stores historically focus on items that don’t fit peoples’ perceptions of what an evening meal should be.”
Offer weekday specials
Fifty-nine percent of consumers say that they’re more likely to purchase dinner from convenience stores during the week rather than on weekends, according to Technomic’s Q4 2019 C-Store Consumer Marketbrief. C-store dinner occasions are more common during the week because restaurants often pull c-store consumers during the weekends, Technomic said. C-stores can capitalize on convenience, low prices and speed of service to heighten the appeal of quick dinners on weeknights to further increase weekly dinners.
“Get a rotating daily weekday special,” said Jessica Williams, founder of c-store consultancy Food Forward Thinking LLC, Lexington, Ky. “This may encourage people to stop for dinner during different days of the week and not stress operations by making a variety of different items.”
Focus on speed
Convenience stores are often associated with speedy service, and operators must capitalize on this skill during dinner. Thirty-eight percent of consumers said that speed of service is the main reason they would purchase c-store foodservice items for dinner, according to Technomic. This outpaced good prices (31%), convenient store location (28%) and good-tasting food (27%).
“Speed is a key purchase driver when it comes to dinner occasions,” Technomic said. “As made-to-order foodservice becomes a more mainstream offering at some c-stores, it will be important to make sure these stores can still provide speedy meal solutions.”
Consumer expectations for speedy service during dinner remain high, since many people who visit are looking for an in-and-out trip, said Montgomery.
“People won’t want to wait 10 minutes for any order during dinner,” he said.
Boost dinner marketing
Across the board, the main reason for dinner’s decline is due to a lack of presence. Nearly half (48%) of consumers said that they simply don’t think of c-stores for dinner occasions, according to Technomic. This was by far the top reason, followed by high prices (21%), poor food quality (21%), a lack of healthy options (21%) and food not looking fresh (19%).
One way to approach this is to increase marketing promotions for dinner programs, Technomic said.
“For many nonusers, c-stores are not even in the dinner consideration set,” Technomic said. “As such, operators will need to do a better job of gaining mindshare for this daypart through avenues such as advertising, especially at the pump where consumers are a captive audience.”
Make it portable
Well over half (61%) of consumers said that when they eat c-store foodservice items for dinner, it’s usually at their home or at someone else’s house, according to Technomic. This outpaced in a car (37%) and inside the store itself (20%). The fact that most consumers often eat their c-store dinner away from the store signals a need to make dinner items as portable as possible.
“Dinner items purchased from c-stores are most likely to be consumed at home,” Technomic said. “Eating in a car or other form of transportation is also common. Dine-in occasions are less common, which may be influenced by lack of availability of seating.”
Stick with the basics
Despite continuous innovation in foodservice, consumers prefer to stick to the basics when it comes to c-store dinner. Nearly half (48%) of consumers say that pizza is their go-to option when visiting c-stores for dinner, more than any other option, according to Technomic. Pizza was followed by hot dogs (36%), cold and hot sandwiches (32%), burgers (32%), fried chicken (29%) and chicken tenders (26%). Women are slightly more likely than men to gravitate to sandwiches, while men are more interested in burgers and fried chicken, Technomic said.
“Pizza tops all other offerings as a dinner favorite,” Technomic said. “Outside of this, a second tier of dinner item favorites emerge consisting of c-store staples from hot dogs to fried chicken.”
Breakfast for dinner
All-day breakfast has become a hot trend in the industry in recent years, and providing these items in the evening may boost dinner sales. Forty percent of consumers said that, if offered, they would order breakfast foods for dinner from convenience stores, according to Technomic.
“Breakfast items present an opportunity for dinner occasions, aligning with the fact that many restaurants have recently had success with all-day breakfast programs,” Technomic said. “This could be a turnkey solution for many c-store operators that already offer a variety of craveable breakfast favorites.”
Consider the bundle
Retailers may want to consider bundling multiple items together in one meal to increase dinner traction, said Jerry Weiner, consulting partner for b2b Solutions and former head of foodservice for Rutter’s and MAPCO.
After struggling to boost c-store dinner for his first two years at Rutter’s, Weiner found success when he combined short ribs and shrimp into one dish; he added sides such as cole slaw and dinner rolls, and called it a Basket Meal, which made it “take off,” he said.
“Bundling creates an impression of dinner,” he said. “Think about the products that might be on a dinner plate at a restaurant and bundle those together.”