One of the most interesting results from instore’s first original market research survey, What's Driving the Retail Foodservice Consumer? (featured in the October issue) was what was revealed when the survey was given a “soft opening” of sorts, with various readers invited to watch an interactive webinar about some of the study's key findings after they were compiled but before they were fully analyzed.

While watching, those invited were themselves surveyed on what they thought would be the most popular answer to various questions asked of the shoppers in the study so that the instore team could see how closely industry perceptions of what consumers want — and what they say they want — match.  

When asked ‘What is the most important factor retail foodservice consumers consider when purchasing prepared foods?’ the results of the poll and those from the research survey itself showed a big gap in our understanding of our consumers.

Sixty-three percent of those in the industry watching the webinar said that price is the most important, followed by 33 percent who selected freshness and about 4 percent who chose healthfulness of the food. Yet in the study, 91 percent of respondents — across all generations — stated that freshness is their No. 1 purchasing driver. Underscoring that prioritization, those consumers who said that they did not buy prepared foods from a c-store in the last year cited their No. 1 reason as being that it wasn’t fresh enough.



Given these three possible responses to the question, this implies that consumers associate freshness with taste, and that the quality and taste of prepared food is viewed as being the top priority. This is not to discount other qualities, however — the respondents to the survey were given more options than just those three to choose from, and were also asked to rank them, as opposed to simply choosing one of three as the highest. In light of that, it’s worth noting that with consumers, convenience comes second to freshness at 86 percent, and price still made the top three at 82 percent.

The disparity between how consumers rank these different qualities and how those watching predicted they would didn’t surprise Jeff Lenard, vice-president of strategic industry initiatives at the National Association of Convenience Stores.

“There is a difference with how consumers perceive value with packaged and fresh items,” he says of the incongruity, explaining that it points to an all-around need to change our own perceptions in the industry just as much as consumers have changed theirs. “Everyone knows how much a candy bar, bag of chips or a drink costs because virtually all retailers sell them,” Lenard explains. “But with ‘fresh’ there are no similar price benchmarks, so consistency rises to the top with consumers. And the reason is mindset — most retailers think about price and other traditional positioning when looking at grocery or packaged food items in stores. But when you sell prepared items, you need the mindset of a restaurant, where quality and consistency are paramount.

“Overall," he continues, "retail foodservice customers shopping at a supermarket or c-store may be disappointed by something, but probably will give you another chance. Meanwhile, restaurant customers are unforgiving. If you disappoint them once, they will never come back and will never tell you why – but they will tell all of their friends and talk about it on social media. So quality/freshness rises to the top for prepared foods. Meanwhile, very few customers will say that they loved a sandwich, but wished that it was 50 cents cheaper.”

Another difference between the results of the webinar poll and those of the survey surfaced when both audiences were asked ‘For what occasion are purchases of fresh, prepared foods increasing the most – breakfast, lunch, dinner or snacking?’ Forty percent of those watching the webinar stated that dinner was, 30 percent said breakfast, 22 percent snacking, and 11 percent lunch. The study, however, again revealed a very different picture, with 22 percent of respondents saying that snacking is increasing most, followed by 21 percent for dinner, 19 percent for lunch and a mere 13 percent for breakfast.



According to Phil Lempert, food industry analyst and editor of, this highlights a shift in perception regarding when we eat and how we think of it — a shift that the industry has been slow to pick up on.

“Remember that today, there are no ‘three meals a day,’” he points out. “People are eating/snacking five to eight times a day, and there is a blurring of exactly what people call the daypart at which they consume. Forget what we call it, there is meal day-part agnosticism — just look at what McDonald's has done with their all-day breakfast.”