Although carefully selected lunchtime fare helps fuel consumers' growing appetite for food to go, these days even the most impulse-driven shopper is going to be watching the pennies. That's why canny c-stores are expanding their range of meal deals.
"We have most definitely had an increase in requests for meal deals, usually linking a hot or cold drink with a sandwich or savoury product," says Country Choice marketing controller Stephen Clifford. "For the immediate future money will remain key and so we expect to see more meal deals and multibuys."
Customers may be demanding value, with a sandwich, snack and drink all under one low price point, but they still expect a high level of quality, as well as a selection of lunch items to choose from within the deal.
"Consumers still want a choice," asserts Spar UK marketing manager Adam Margolin. "They're far more demanding when it comes to the offers now available in convenience stores."
For retailers, the first step to sourcing a successful meal deal is liaising with the right suppliers.
"Work with suppliers who have a good relationship with producers across the categories and who can help facilitate setting up the meal deal," advises Andy Valentine, head of brand marketing for Ginsters.
He says that popular deals are driven by an appealing main component, usually a lunchtime favourite such as pastry product or a sandwich, so it's important to lead with a good-quality item.
After you've sealed the deal it's essential to then take the time to promote it properly.
"The siting of meal deal pos material can be poorer in c-stores compared with the multiples," says Valentine. "This needs to be worked on if c-stores are to get maximum returns."
James Minnette, retail and wholesale national account controller at Bakehouse, agrees. "The deal should be well-signposted," he says. "Advertising the meal deal prominently will encourage last-minute impulse purchases."
Clifford believes that although more sophisticated pos material is out there, straightforward marketing methods often get the best results.
"We tend to do simple 'belly posters' along the lines of being big and bold, with a clear price package," he says.
Despite the reams of 'credit munch'-style magazine articles suggesting that office workers save money by preparing their sarnies at home, it doesn't look like consumers will be falling out of love with the prepackaged sandwich any time soon. According to figures from the British Sandwich Association, an estimated 2 billion sandwiches are purchased outside the home every year.
Chantelle Ludski, managing director of Fresh! Naturally Organic, is honing in on customer demand for healthier options with her company's prepackaged organic wraps, soups and sandwiches. She sees meal deals as being great news for both manufacturers and retailers.
"Being approached to be part of a meal deal means that we get great distribution for our sandwiches and retailers get to stock something that's different to their usual lunch offer," she says.
As well as cashing in on healthy eating, brands are also taking notice of consumers' concerns about the provenance of their food. This year Ginsters relaunched its sandwich range with an emphasis on its British heritage.
"Customers are still looking for the quality assurance that fresh British ingredients deliver," says Valentine. "We will be making it clear that we use British chicken, ham, bacon and cheese in our products."
Meanwhile, making sandwiches in-store has its advantages. "Offering freshly made sandwiches as part of a meal deal enables c-stores with Subway branches to provide customers with great value, convenient meal-time products," says Alex Cacouris, Subway head of marketing in the UK and Ireland.
"The Fresh Value Meal offered in Subway c-stores provides customers with the freedom to choose by selecting the ingredients for their Sub along with any drink and a treat - either crisps or a freshly baked cookie."
There are more than 100 Subway outlets operating or in development in c-stores and forecourt sites in the UK and Ireland. The chain has ambitious expansion plans and is actively seeking businesses to lease space to and become trained franchisees.
Because of their popularity with primarily male food-to-go shoppers, pastries are often right at the heart of successful meal deals. For c-store retailers who want to boost their pastry sales further, Bakehouse's Minnete recommends reinforcing the natural link between a cup of coffee to go and hot pastry products.
"Retailers can use coffee to drive pastry sales," he suggests. "If they install a quality coffee machine and promote the availability of coffee they can tempt in customers, then target them with food offers such as croissants at breakfast time and Danish pastries for elevenses."
Elsewhere in the pastry sector, retailers are developing their ranges to improve the image of what some customers still see as an unhealthy, poor-quality product, but which is nevertheless worth £167.7m, according to AC Nielsen.
Wall's new Full of Filling range of sausage rolls, slices and pork pies is being marketed with the emphasis on high-quality, satisfying fillings, complete with butcher's-style brown paper bag packaging for a more traditional feel.
Though sometimes seen as peripheral to a meal deal offer, the crisps and nuts category is worth £2.04bn in the UK, with customers spending £545.7m of that share in c-stores, according to TNS. The sector's popularity means it's important to give it a supporting role in any good meal deal offer.
At present, snack manufacturers are appealing to shoppers' more sophisticated side with premium products in adventurous flavours. Leading the way is the relaunched Phileas Fogg brand, with the focus on deli-style tastes.
C-store consumers may crave exotic flavours, but they also want healthy snacks, too, a trend underlined by TNS which says that 55 million snacking occasions were driven by health in 2008. Walkers currently manufactures the UK's biggest better-for-you brand, Walkers Baked, which is also being revamped this year.
With the popularity of the food-to-go sector providing the perfect opportunity for c-store managers to make meal deals a successful part of their business, there's plenty of scope to find out what products hold most appeal to regular customers.
"Try them out," urges Bakehouse's Minnette. "Running different deals on a short-term basis will help convenience store managers see what works best for their particular store."
"Last year we spent £110,000 on the store so we could introduce food to go. As part of that refit we've found that our food-to-go offer has been extremely popular, especially the meal deals.
"The store is next to a college and we get about 300 customers an hour between 11pm and 1am. We started off by doing a meal deal on Monday, and then expanded the offer through the week. For retailers new to meal deals I'd say it's important to go slowly. It's about seeing what works, as well as keeping an eye on costs at each stage.
"Value is the driving force with meal deals - these days customers are looking for value wherever they can find it."
Roy Wynne Jones, owner of Golftyn Spar, Flint, Flintshire
Aimed squarely at carnivores, 100% chicken breast Fridge Raider Bites will appeal to meat-eaters with meal deals in mind.
tel: 0800 1214688
With eco-friendly appeal and bright packaging, Fresh! Naturally Organic kids' sandwiches should be a hit with mums.
tel: 0845 8437374
Chilli bites back
Spice up your meal deal with McCoy's Twisted salt & malt vinegar with chilli. The whole range has seen a 30% reduction in saturated fats.
tel: 0800 138 0813
No frills approach
Wall's new Full of Filling pastry range promises no-nonsense meaty fillings for those who want a straightforward option.
tel: 0800 1214688
Red Sky thinking
The last word in posh premium snacking, Walkers Red Sky range ticks all the boxes for foodie types who want deli-style ingredients.
tel: 0118 930 6666
Know your market. You need to be clear exactly what you are trying to achieve with the meal deal and who you are trying to attract. Research shows that 18- to 35-year-olds are more responsive to
c-store promotions than other age groups
Keep it fresh. Meal deals need to be refreshed on a regular basis, or menu fatigue will set in and you won't achieve any long-term growth in sales
Stock up on key products. Availability is key. Sandwiches and savouries are purchased throughout the day - not just at lunchtime - so the best-selling SKUs must always be on sale. It is important to ensure that the top five selling savouries and top 10 sandwiches are always in stock
Keep products together. Savouries and sandwiches should be in a highly visible location, with the other products that are bought
as part of the 'meal set' placed close by
Category management tips from Andy Valentine, head of brand marketing for Ginsters.
1 Chicken (36.6% market share)
2 Ham (7.6%)
3 Cheese (6.8%)
4 Tuna (5.6%)
5 Prawn (5.1%)
Source: British Sandwich Association