I’m in Atlanta this week at the NACS Show: the convenience-store industry’s premier event.
If you’re in attendance and wish to contact me, please use this form. I typically respond within the hour.
Breakfast was occasionally a challenge during my journey.
It’s not that c-stores don’t offer quality, healthful options, but rather that there’s a sharp divide between those who do and don’t. There’s stores like Sheetz and Kum & Go, one one hand—which make it simple and easy—but there’s also places that offer little more than those microwavable sausage, egg, and cheese biscuits. You know, the ones that are often soggy by time you tear open the package.
This is unfortunate, because breakfast presents a real opportunity for c-stores.
For starters, c-stores are often the most convenient way to grab breakfast on-the-go. In Des Moines. Iowa, there’s an intersection near the State Fairgrounds that’s always busy during the morning commute. Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, and McDonald’s are all within sight, and while QSRs like to tout the efficacy of their drive-thru lanes, the hustle and bustle of people going to work often makes them six or seven cars deep. Hardly convenient. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to get in and out of the nearby QuikTrip in about two minutes. I know from experience since I used to stop there on the way to a previous job.
And let’s be honest: anyone who raves about the speed of a QSR drive-thru has obviously never watched QT employees process multiple customers at once, in a matter of seconds. It’s amazing.
But even in areas where it’s easy to find quality, traditional breakfast offerings, healthful choices are less-common. And QSRs are catching up in this area as well. As mentioned in this month’s issue of NACS Magazine (Food Fight, by Jerry Soverinsky), they’re aggressively encroaching on c-store territory in an effort to combat stagnant and sometimes slumping sales; and I’ve seen evidence of this on my travels. We all know that McDonald’s has rolled out an all-day breakfast menu, for example, and they’ve even added a “better for you” version of the Egg McMuffin. But similar trends also exist with regional QSRs, and they’re increasingly competitive.
If c-stores stay ahead of the game in developing innovative, quality, and healthful breakfast options, I believe they not only have an opportunity to prevent QSRs from encroaching on their territory, but can poach customers from theirs as well. After all, they’re more convenient. They also have more to offer in the way of beverage selection and other products.
Industry research also shows that the opportunity exists.
According to “Health and Wellness Trends and Strategies for the Convenience Store Sector”, a 2015 report from the Hudson Institute, the largest segment of consumers (38%) can be described as “Fence Sitters”—folks who want to live healthy lives but are stuck in a somewhat in-between stage. Not only are they a growing segment, but they spend more than the traditional core consumer.
And breakfast, it turns out, presents the most significant opportunity to attract this demographic. A higher percentage of Fence Sitters (57%) report making healthy choices during breakfast as opposed to lunch (40%), dinner (50%), and snacking (33%).
According to the Hudson Institute:
Within foodservice, breakfast appears to present the biggest opportunity. Compared to the other meal occasions, nutrition at breakfast is considered most important and Fence Sitters are currently eating healthier options during this meal occasion in particular. Given the high concentration of children in Fence Sitter households, this daypart can also serve to improve Fence Sitter sales by providing healthier “on-the-go” foods and snacks for their children.
It all sounds great, of course, but what’s a store to do, specifically? How do you attract these customers?
The report provides some general advice—suggesting a move beyond the sweet and indulgent ready-to-eat items, as well as the addition of “better for you” items in a cooler section. And they’re right; that’s solid advice. But based on my experience visiting hundreds of stores across twenty-four states, I have some additional suggestions.
1. Can your customers “assemble” a meal?
Everyone has a mental picture of what “breakfast” looks like.
I prefer something in the range of 400 to 700 calories, and it generally begins with a primary item—such as a breakfast sandwich, wrap, or scrambled eggs. Then I look for fruit or vegetables, mixed nuts depending on my level of hunger, and a sugar-free drink that contains a copious amount of caffeine. (I know, I know…) If I’m about to engage in athletic pursuits, I usually look for something with peanut butter and oats, add a banana, and again reach for the sugar-free, caffeinated beverage.
When I enter a convenience store, I expect to find options for each category. At Kum & Go, for example, there’s a turkey sausage, egg white, and cheese sandwich on an English muffin that comes in at around 300 calories. It’s delicious. Then I grab a pack of mixed nuts, a banana, and a sugar-free energy—usually one from Rockstar. If I’m in a hurry, the whole process takes about two minutes.
But some customers may want fruit, granola, and some form of low-fat or low-sugar yogurt. Others may pair a banana with eggs and coffee. Only you can know for sure what your customers prefer, but the point is this: if your customers are unable to assemble various “breakfast” meals, then you’re missing a big opportunity.
I’ve encountered this problem on the road. It’s rare since I’m not very picky, but it’s happened. Most stores have a solid selection of mixed nuts, but one may lack fruit, products with eggs, and the snack bars might be loaded with sugar.
Then what am I supposed to do?
2. Aim to be a destination store
If you do at least one thing really, really well—or offer something that customers can’t find anywhere else—then you stand a chance of becoming what I refer to as a destination store.
Customers will stop at high-quality stores even if they’re a few minutes out of the way, but they’ll tolerate a much further deviation for destination stores—places like Kent Couch’s Stop and Go in Bend, Oregon. Kent’s store is a bit on the extreme end of the spectrum, but the point is that he goes above and beyond the competition. There’s the growler station with more than forty types of craft beer, the more than fifteen types of kombucha on tap, and a breakfast selection that includes sausage and egg burritos that are cooked fresh right there in the store. If I lived in the area, I’d leave for work fifteen or twenty minutes earlier just to stop there. Without a doubt.
But it only takes one thing to make your store into a destination.
Look at Casey’s General Store during the breakfast hours, for example. Yes, yes…I know that Casey’s is one of the largest c-stores in the United States, but ask anyone in Iowa about their breakfast pizza, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s practically a rite of passage in my state—something akin to a spiritual experience. It may not be the most healthful item, but it’s downright decadently delicious.
When my coworker flew to Iowa this summer, the first thing he said is “we’re stopping at Casey’s tomorrow morning”.
That’s just one product.
3. Get creative. Go back to the basics or sell something new and different.
When I’m home on the weekends, I regularly scramble eggs for breakfast. Add a pinch of tarragon, grind some salt, take the fry pan off the heat, scramble, put it back on, scramble, and repeat. Eggs are a solid staple of my diet, and I imagine that many others will agree.
So why is it so difficult to find scrambled eggs when I’m on-the-go?
You might imagine my surprise when I discovered that QuikTrip sells them in a fantastic to-go container—complete with a sealable lid. They may hold the tarragon and sliced avocados, but they keep it simple and basic. It’s great. I’m totally fine with eggs, cheese, and perhaps a bit of sausage or bacon. I had one this morning, in fact, and it certainly won’t be the last.
Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with selling the basics.
Kum & Go, on the other hand, has gotten creative and now sells breakfast sandwiches that I’ve never seen in any c-store. For example, one consists of chicken and apple sausage that’s been split in half, topped with egg and Swiss cheese, and placed on a ciabatta bun. Another uses smoked andouille sausage and pepper-jack cheese.
They also sell the traditional breakfast sandwiches, of course, but sometimes people want something new. Why not experiment a bit? Give customers another reason to forget the QSR’s and visit your store.
4. If you have a made-to-order menu, allow customers to customize their selections
This is critical.
Customers are often picky, have picky kids, or want an extra piece of this or that on their breakfast items. They may avoid a purchase if they can’t remove a certain ingredient, and they might get excited if they know they can add other ingredients that aren’t traditionally included.
Rather than telling them what you’re going to put on your made-to-order meals, allow them to tell you. Build this option into your menu.
Sheetz and Buc-ee’s, for example, have touchscreen ordering systems that allow for extensive customization. When I stop at Sheetz for a breakfast sandwich, I can choose my bread, cheese, method of egg preparation, seasonings, and a whole host of other options. If I don’t want something added—or if I want double eggs, cheese, or bacon—that’s okay as well.
But even if you don’t have touchscreens and instead display a simple menu, make it clear that customers are encouraged to modify and customize. Or better yet: tell them what their options are.
It’s just another way to differentiate c-stores from QSRs.
Let’s do it!
In the end, it’s all about convenience. Customers increasingly want healthier on-the-go choices, and I believe that c-stores are uniquely positioned to do this better than anyone else.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and make it happen.