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Discover Gold In ‘Customer Zones’: A Proven Strategy To Increase Foodservice Sales

Howland Blackiston
Howland Blackiston

by Howland Blackiston/principal, King-Casey

My July article in The Shelby Report pointed out that grocery stores and supermarkets could learn a lot from QSRs and fast-casual restaurant competitors as they entered the “brave, new world of branded, proprietary food offerings.” Specifically, they needed to (1) develop a menu strategy; (2) commit to continuous innovation; and (3) think customer zones.

The last point deserves amplification here.

The first step in establishing a successful grocerant is to understand that you now have a “restaurant in your supermarket.” It is not just another department like meat, produce, deli, pharmacy, etc., but a separate entity with its own customer base. Your foodservice customers have different needs and expectations and, to make things more complicated, these needs differ depending on the zone they are in.

What are Customer Zones? Most successful restaurants understand a basic truth that stores are not just big, branded boxes. Instead, each restaurant is actually a collection of many individual “operating zones” in which customers act differently because their needs are different. By identifying these zones and understanding how customers behave in each one, a brand can develop zone-specific communications and merchandising strategies that respond directly to customer needs and behaviors. That makes the customer experience faster, easier, more enjoyable and—dare we say—more profitable for the operator.

Let’s look at some specific zones and discuss best practices and other communication “do’s and don’ts” within them. They are based on the premise that you have already developed a menu strategy that links menu items to specific business objectives and prioritizes and guides all in-store food merchandising.

The Entry Zone

The Entry Zone is simply the primary and second entry doors and air locks—a place where customers may spend no more than 2-3 seconds. But it is your first opportunity to make an impression and influence foodservice sales. Keep messages short and quick to comprehend because customers spend so little time here. Use large, powerful visuals and keep text to a minimum. Strategically, this is a perfect place to start staged merchandising—a series of simple, related messages over several consecutive zones. Staged merchandising can pre-sell high-margin meal options, such as combos. It can encourage trial by promoting limited time offers (LTOs). It can enhance ease-of-ordering, speed throughput and improve customer satisfaction.

The Order Zone

The Order Zone is where the rubber hits the road because 55 percent of customers are undecided at this point. That’s where your menu board should be located. There is not a single more important merchandising tool in the entire system. To optimize your menu board, you need to do some homework—analyzing your sales, how much space you allot to each menu item, ease of navigation and graphic readability. “Hot spot” analysis is particularly important. Hot spots are the menu board areas that customers look at first, which is where your best sellers and highest margin menu items should be placed. Keep in mind that customers prefer ordering by pictures vs. text. Use images of drinks to stimulate thirst appeal and show variety. The optimized menu board should complete the staged messaging started in the Entry Zone.

The Dine-In Zone

Although implementing merchandising and communications in The Dine-In Zone is easy, the impact on the bottom line may happen at a later date. Use this zone for future sales and brand building. Focus messages on alternate dayparts, specific occasions and catering. Research shows that customers have time to read in this zone, so your messages can be more detailed and informative. Use table tents and wall posters accordingly. Don’t overlook the adjacent Condiment Zone for potential “next time” foodservice messaging.

The Exit Zone

Be sure to leverage The Exit Zone. Like the Entry Zone, customers spend scant seconds breezing through here. So use it for brief messages with powerful visuals to encourage future visits and to promote seasonal items, special occasions and upcoming LTOs.

This systematic process, which we call COZI—which stands for Customer Operating Zone Improvement—is being used successfully by many leading QSR and fast-casual brands such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell and others. In fact, Starbucks applied COZI principles to its drive-thru several years ago, and the resultant revitalization became the largest capital project in the company’s history and established it as a leader in the field. Drive-thrus may seem far-fetched to grocers now, but think about it, how long ago was it you first heard the term “grocerant”?

King-Casey is a consulting and branding firm serving the restaurant industry; king-casey.com. Blackiston directed the Starbucks engagement.

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