Fresh food is in demand right now. As customers look for more natural and healthy options, they are gravitating towards the perimeter of the supermarket and trying to avoid packaged and processed foods that are usually sold in the middle aisles. According to Euromonitor International, it is a trend that is predicted to continue to grow.
While this is good news for stores and food markets that focus on fresh items, it poses a challenge for foodservice categories such as convenience stores that have traditionally placed more emphasis on shelf-stable products. It also increases competition between grocery, convenience stores, and fast food.
Some convenience stores are incorporating more fresh food into their product mix to meet this trend and have successfully transitioned to a fresher brand image. However, others in the category are still burdened by legacy perceptions of stale, unhealthy, and low-quality food sold in gas station stops, even if they have improved their products. So, what can these convenience stores do to communicate to customers that their products are fresh?
The following strategies can help convenience stores shift perceptions.
Strategy #1: Branding & Marketing
Once a store has moved towards fresher products, the first task is to assess if branding and marketing initiatives are aligned with the fresh message. If not, communication will not be as strong, so they should be updated to reflect the change. This step is crucial to ensure that customers are aware of the transition and informed of the brand principles and value proposition. For example, Wawa claims to currently have a “fresh first” mindset and uses the messaging of “only the freshest ingredients”. Similarly, Sheetz puts a lot of emphasis on its fresh and “made to order” products. These messages can be displayed on marketing materials, websites, apps, and in-store. They support a shift in product assortment and can attract attention to generate buzz. A cohesive brand also focuses marketing initiatives so that the desired impact can be achieved.
Strategy #2: Sensory Cues
Another strategy is to design an environment that communicates freshness through each of the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste, since our senses are they way in which we gather information to form opinions. For touch and taste it is up to the products to deliver. It will be difficult to convince customers of freshness if bread feels stale or chicken tastes dried out. Sampling is one way to allow new customers to touch and taste products before they buy them. For hearing and smell, an open or semi-open kitchen can provide freshness signals. Allowing customers to actually hear and smell products being cooked and prepared goes a long way in communicating freshness. When designing for the visual sense, there are many approaches that can support a fresh message. Compelling product displays, kitchen sight-lines, appealing food photography and menu imagery, and even written product descriptions can communicate freshness.
Strategy #3: Fresh Associations
Designing elements into the store that carry fresh associations will also help communicate freshness. We all make sense of our world through perceptual and sensory processes that sometimes operate at a subconscious level. For example, you might jump back from a snake up ahead on the trail before you have even fully recognized it. Cues from the environment combine with learned or instinctive associations to form a reaction (i.e. a snake means danger). The same principles apply to communicating freshness in a convenience store. For example, the concept of fresh is often paired with images of farmers markets or bakeries. So, if an environment reminds customers of these types of places, it also may be perceived as offering fresh products. Some of these cues could include handwritten style fonts, farmers market baskets, or the sound of a coffee bean grinder.
Shikatani Lacroix leveraged these strategies in a partnership with Mapco Mart. Fresh cues were designed into the store to highlight its made-to-order foodservice, proprietary coffee and cold beverage program, and grab-and-go food items. These cues included the use of the color green, bakery-inspired materials such as stone walls and striped awnings, a café-style outdoor seating area with umbrellas, textured graphics, fresh messaging, and strong food and beverage photography.
If branding, sensory cues, and fresh associations are considered and leveraged within a convenience store, its image of freshness will improve. Of course, these elements are only support pieces, and the real test of freshness is determined when customers taste your products, so product quality is the most important test. Without it, any efforts to shift perceptions will be dismissed.