C-stores are expected to offer competitive meal deals, but tight margins make this a challenge. Our C-Store Champions reveal their tactics

Paul Cheema, co-owner of two Nisa Malcolm’s stores in Coventry

Paul says his digital media screens help him publicise meal deals and increase footfall

Jonathan McCullagh, owner of Classic Service Station, Omagh

The McCullagh’s own-label range of healthy and protein meals is working well, Jonathan reports

Gregory Cochrane, manager of EuroSpar Binnian Fresh Food Hall, Kilkeel, Co Down

Gregory’s customers are demanding a much better range of meal deal options than in the past

Raj Chandegra, owner of six Londis stores in London

The £3 lunch deal is essential, says Raj, to ensure customers perceive his store as good value for money

What meal deals do you offer?

Paul: We always have evening meal deals. We have teamed up with Hi! Street Digital Media, which provides us with digital media screens that advertise our offering at the store front window. We advertise our offer as ‘Feed the family for a fiver’. That will include something like fish fingers and chips and ice cream in the frozen section. That’s particularly good for mums. But we also have a chilled offering in which we’ll offer two Charlie Bigham’s ready meals and a couple of bottles of beer for a tenner.

Jonathan: Our focus is our McCullagh’s own-label meal solutions. We offer a multi-buy deal on this range at any two for £6. They are displayed in spider fridges at the store entrance and we have bespoke POS to advertise them. People’s shopping habits have changed to wanting something that’s quick to make yet is made fresh, tastes great and is still affordable. Our own-brand meal solutions are all fresh, made from scratch in store each day by our team of chefs. Basically, everything that is produced for our award-winning hot food and deli counter is also available for the customer to purchase as part of the take-home meal solution. We produce everything from the ready-to-heat freshly-cut vegetables to cooked meats with sauces and everything else in between. Customer convenience is key. We also have a traditional fish & chip shop located within our store which also offers meal deals including soft drinks. Customers have the option to take away or to grab a seat in our 40-seater customer dining area.

Gregory: We are offering more value-driven meal solutions than ever before across all areas of the store. We have our sandwich meal deal offer which includes a Daily Deli sandwich, roll, or salad and a Spar-brand soft drink for £3 or less. The Barista Bar coffee brand continues to help us boost our sales – we offer a hot drink with a snack for £2.99. Recently, our Barista Bar loyalty scheme received a digital upgrade. Previously the scheme operated a paper and stamp process, but now all of our Coffee Connoisseurs register online, which adds extra security at all levels. All new members receive a free hot drink when they sign up and another free hot drink on their birthday. We like to let customers personalise their in-store experience – our Daily Deli counter provides a ‘build your own fry’, where the customer can choose five fry-up items for £2.50. Our hot food range includes meal deals such as sausage, beans and chips for £3, or chicken curry with naan and rice for £5, always with a Spar-branded soft drink. Driving these key value offerings helps to encourage impulse meal seekers. We also promote our offerings via social media.

Raj: I have lunchtime meal deals in three of my stores and they are the sandwich, crisps and drink for £3.

How have these changed over time?

Paul: We’ve had these deals for quite a long time now as they work well.

Jonathan: Since the sugar levy, we’ve had to increase the price slightly on our chip shop meal deals to offer bottled water as a cheaper alternative. So far we have seen no negative impact on sales.

Gregory: We recently extended our Barista Bar snack and hot drink offering to include Barista Bar brand protein bites into the deal as well.

Raj: This deal has pretty much stayed the same for the past few years. Most people expect the standard meal deal package for lunch time. We have thought about adding an extra component into that deal so people can get a chocolate bar, too, but we decided that would make it too expensive and would make the offer more complicated to communicate to shoppers. I think as soon as your meal deal goes over £3.50 it’s not seen as a deal any more – in fact, people can start to think you’re ripping them off, even though you’re not. I’ve started selling Tropicana within the meal deal which is more expensive for me to buy, but it’s something I think you have to offer.

Which deals are the most effective for increasing footfall and basket spend?

Paul: It’s not so much about the meals themselves when it comes to footfall. It’s all about interruption and inspiration at the front of store. We have seen the sales increase since having the digital screens out the front of the store.

Jonathan: Customers looking to prepare a meal for the evening tea generally have the biggest basket spend. We are ideally located as a petrol station with large convenience store on the edge of the town centre, so it makes us an ideal location for customers to pop in and grab everything they need for the evening tea on their way home from work.

Gregory: The whole aim of meal deals is to get people to trade up and put more in their baskets. It’s about showing that we have the full meal solution. We will often encourage purchases on products that people wouldn’t usually buy. Recently, we boosted a range of slower-moving veg – such as sugar snap peas, baby corn and tender stem broccoli – with a ‘two for £2’ offer which has led to phenomenal sales growth. The introduction of a ‘two for £4’ offer across our berries range has proven popular. Last week we saw sales of £1,050 across strawberries, blueberries and raspberries.

Raj: The lunch meal deal is very good at bringing in regular customers.

What are some trending meals?

Paul: For us it’s mums going for pizzas and side dishes and ice cream. They go for that all the time, it’s a massive favourite for us.

Jonathan: This year we launched our own McCullaghs range of healthy meals and protein meals. This has been a huge area of growth for us. It is a market which we are keen to invest in and develop further as the demand is there for these types of meals. They retail at £3.49 or ‘two for £6’. We have an ever-growing range that currently includes salmon, peri peri turkey burgers, bang bang chicken, spinach burgers, along with noodles, rice, baby potatoes, sweet potatoes and selections of green veg, to name just a few. Customers are our biggest inspiration. We listen to all feedback and suggestions they have and we try our best to incorporate these into our products. Give the customer what they what! We also have regular staff meetings for all ideas to be put on the table and we tend to run with most ideas – nothing ventured, nothing gained. The key is to be flexible and quick to adapt your product.

Gregory: It’s becoming apparent that shoppers want more than a simple sausage bap these days – we now must offer a much wider range of options to remain competitive. We want to be first choice when it comes to breakfast, lunch and dinner. Choice is important to the customer, so we have introduced items such as mushrooms, tomatoes, poached eggs and black pudding to our breakfast range. We have also taken our shoppers’ feedback into consideration and extended our lunch and evening menu to include honey chilli chicken, burritos and southern fried chicken wraps. These new additions are all proving popular.

Raj: I would say the most popular meals are the standard ham and cheese sandwiches. I do more wraps now than in the past and these have more interesting fillings such as falafel and sweet chilli chicken, but people always seem to go back to their old favourites.

Which meal occasion do you think has the most potential for growth going forward? How do you plan to evolve that offering?

Paul: The evening meal occasion is definitely the main and growing one. We don’t even bother with offering breakfast and lunch anymore. We are a destination store and so we don’t have people dropping by for meals in the day and we hate the word ‘distress’. Even in the forecourt store I don’t do a lunch meal deal as we’ve found that we can get much better margins without. It will be good to get a bigger range with the Co-op offer merging in.

Jonathan: Dinner meal solutions are the way forward as millennials are looking more and more for quick-fix healthy and fresh meal solutions. The customer shopping for dinner meal solutions also has the most potential for upselling in our store.

Gregory: We are enjoying some great growth in our ‘Tonight’s Tea’ range and it is something we would like to expand on. We have so many people pop in on their way to work in the morning, so now the aim is to get them coming in on their return journey as well. We find that our shoppers are very time- and value-driven and anything that can improve their experience in terms of shopping, cooking and washing-up should do well. We are currently looking at running a trial of hot food-to-go dinner offers in our store across our chicken and potato ranges. The lines which are proving popular within our Tonight’s Tea meal range are the Spar Enjoy Local protein range and The Kitchen ready meal range covering a range of mains, sides and desserts. Cunningham’s Butcher, our award winning in-store butchery, provides a fantastic range of ‘three for £10’ evening meal solutions. These are extremely popular which again shows the importance of offering an easy evening meal mission. Theming meal ideas around key events, such as the World Cup, is very effective for us. We’ve decided to extend our snack offerings to include pizza and chips to make the most of this great sales opportunity.

Raj: We only have the lunch deal and I think that’s what we’ll continue with in the future as this works well for us.

Shopper perception

How important are meal deals to your offering?

Paul: Very important. They definitely increase our footfall and basket spend. Using the digital screens means we can stop people on their way to the chippy and encourage them to come in for our meals.

Jonathan: They are hugely important, the McCullagh’s meal solutions are unique to us. Branding it with our own name creates exclusivity of the product which customers can only purchase in our store. This creates a unique selling point and makes our store a destination shop.

Gregory: Meal deals are very important for our value-driven shoppers. They are a consistent offering that generates a lot of loyalty - it’s all about making life easier for people. Shoppers know that they will receive an extensive range of options and we keep our promotional messaging simple, so they know exactly what they can get for their money. We have a Subway franchise and roughly 60% of its business is completed through meal deals.

Raj: It is definitely important as I think Joe Public expects to see them and if you don’t have them they can see your store as being a rip-off.


Which suppliers have helped you with offering meal deals in your store?

Paul: We work with Carlsberg and Coors. We are also just doing some work with Coca-Cola and an alcohol supplier that I can’t mention yet, and we’re going to work with the two to create adult and kids’ versions of our meal deals, offering an alcoholic and a soft drink option.

Jonathan: We use local suppliers to source almost all of our ingredients. Fresh locally-sourced and locally-produced food tastes much better and is a great selling point.

Gregory: We work with award-winning local suppliers Around Noon, which provides our delicious sandwiches, wraps and rolls. All of our Daily Deli offerings are supplied by Henderson Foodservice, another one of the Henderson Group companies.

Raj: Some are better than others when it comes to working with me to offer deals, but I don’t generally have too much trouble offering deals based on the standard prices. Most soft drinks cost you about the same amount, other than juice drinks which do seem to be more popular now than they used to be. I did see in Tesco that it is selling Naked juice drinks within its £3 meal deal. This is incredible to me as they must be taking a 40% cut in order to do that. They must be getting a much better deal than I could ever get. But perhaps with the Tesco Booker merger I might start to be able to buy stock with that sort of a discount in the future. It’s going to be interesting to see.