Is food-to-go good to go once more?

Rustlers Cook in Box range

Very few categories got decimated quite like food-to-go under lockdown but with restrictions being eased and footfall slowly returning in stores, how should retailers approach a profitable but challenging category?

Last year was, for many retailers, a very challenging but very positive one. Retailers outside of city centres and transport hubs generally saw their sales go through the roof as customers turned to local stores in their hour of need.

As a result, sales in most categories duly rocketed skyward – but in some categories, the pandemic inflicted a catastrophic blow. Among those categories was food-to-go.

While food-to-go had been in strong growth in 2019 with many stores evolving their offer to reflect an increasing blurring of the retail / foodservice boundary, the onset of lockdown killed it stone dead for many.

Food-to-go relies largely on regular, solid, predictable footfall so severely depressed customer traffic made it exceptionally difficult for retailers to maintain a viable, profitable food-to-go offer.

With Covid restrictions easing and customers returning to stores, however, the big question is how do retailers react? Turning food-to-go back on bit by bit is difficult but with footfall numbers still suppressed, how can retailers begin to ease back into food-to-go without the huge commitment required to provide an extensive menu at all day parts without risking huge waste and lost effort?

The answer to that question will vary store to store, but one relatively straightforward step could be to take a minimum-fuss approach to adding some hot food-to-go options in-store with the minimum effort required of staff.

Reacting to what’s in front of them, rather than waiting for the old normal to return is the key, believes Kepak Consumer Foods, the company behind the Rustlers brand.

Home working

“2020 saw a rapid change in consumer behaviour, namely the shift to more home working that could have long-term implications for the food-to-go category in convenience,” says Ross Davison, Convenience Controller. “Retailers should adapt their offering to fit with evolving shopper needs rather than waiting for old habits to return.

“Now, with the easing of restrictions, retailers have a significant opportunity to make more money from their food-to-go fixtures with Rustlers bespoke range of instore solutions, which in turn will drive in store sales and retailer demand for our products.”

Having recently launched a new range of complete food-to-go solutions in the convenience channel, Rustlers is continuing to evolve its offer to adapt to a changing world.

“We’re helping the channel optimise hot food-to-go offerings with our innovative Rustlers Cook in Box solution,” explains Davison.

Rolling out now across convenience, Cook in Box allows shoppers to heat a fully assembled burger without even opening the pack, eliminating any messy preparation whilst also acting as a product carrier to enable easy consumption on the go.

Davison comments: “Together with the brand’s new range of food-to-go solutions, Cook in Box creates a low cost, low wastage approach for retailers who want to capitalise on the growing demand for food-to-go.”

Whatever food-to-go solution you adopt, one sure way of growing incremental sales is by ensuring that every customer at your food-to-go counter leaves with an item or two extra. Often this will involve crisps and snacks.

Matt Collins, Trading Director at KP Snacks, comments: “Food-to-go remains an important mission and scalable channel. This previous hero category has undoubtedly faced big challenges and impact as a result of the Covid pandemic through reduced mobility, stay at home messaging, and national and regional lockdowns.

“However, food-to-go is a long-term, resilient growth trend, serving a transient population and on the go society. The category is insulated for recovery and we expect the market to rebound to growth as restrictions ease and footfall and frequency returns, with ‘starved’ consumers remerging as the UK slowly makes its return to some semblance of a new normality.”

Adaptability key

Collins agrees that adaptability will be key in fully leveraging the food-to-go opportunity and developing solutions appropriate for current shopper behaviours.

“In this environment, be ready, be brave, be curious and invest to build back the food-to-go category and as a result, win share as the market rebounds and recovers,” he advises. “It will be important to move at pace, pivoting and adapting as the environment changes around us and the conditions for success permit.”

In terms of how crisps and snacks feed into that strategy, Collins says: “Operators will need to offer the right product mix to deal with economic disruption and consumer confidence, delivering and demonstrating great value and unlocking more cautious spending through promotional purchasing.”

What does that mean in practice? “Firstly,” says Collins, “stock the right core range of familiar and trusted big brands that consumers recall, recognise and trust. Make sure to include a balance of portfolio formats to serve all occasions and missions. McCoy’s and Hula Hoops Grab Bags perfectly fulfil a hunger fill mission for those looking for a bigger eat, while popchips is ideal for those seeking a lighter snack.

“Secondly, create value by understanding customer expectations, whether that be through premium or value offerings. 51% of shoppers look for meal deals when buying food-to-go and 34% of shoppers would pay more than £5 for meal deals if the products were high quality [IGD 2019]. Lastly, bring stock to life through theatre, display and activation to inspire and engage. Position your snacks with high visibility to encourage customers to create bigger baskets and cater for all customer missions: weekday lunchtimes are the most popular time for eating out, so it’s important to have the right products, at the right price and in the right place to help maximise your sales and make sure to excite and interrupt with NPD and innovation to entice consumers.”