New research into the food-to-go shopper by convenience experts HIM Research & Consulting provides valuable insight for store owners

For many years, food to go has been an area of great interest to convenience operators. Reducing as it does the trade’s reliance on traditional categories such as tobacco and news, and enhancing margins to boot, the category has long been pictured as one of the key growth areas for convenience operators.

But, as in other categories, competition is increasing. So the latest shopper study by HIM Research & Consulting - based on 800 interviews across a variety of outlets -unlocks some of the shopper thinking about how independent convenience stores match up against their multiple counterparts and the high street coffee and sandwich chains when it comes to food to go.

Food to go is highly valuable to c-stores, accounting for £4.8bn per year, according to HIM’s Convenience Tracking Programme. That is based on a 1.1 billion shopping trips per year, a huge number, but actually down slightly on the number of trips in 2014. But it’s not the consumer’s appetite for food on the move that’s waning, c-stores are simply losing footfall to other channels offering fast solutions. So a little more understanding of the shopper and their needs can still deliver some good rewards for the industry.

Not all stores are the same

Not surprisingly, the demand for food to go varies according to type of outlet, with food to go being the main ‘mission’ (ie reason for visiting) more often at transient stores than in neighbourhood outlets. But the gap is not huge - 21% of visitors at transient stores compared with 13% at neighbourhood stores said they were on a food-to-go mission.

HIM insights director Katie Littler explains: “The food-to-go mission is an important shopping mission in many c-stores and no surprise it is particularly prevalent in more transient stores; those near offices, transport links, urban locations where people are away from home and needing a ‘mobile meal’ solution. There is still an opportunity in neighbourhood stores, but often not to the same extent.”

Young, free, single - and male

Convenience store shoppers in general are slightly more likely to be female than male - 56% vs 44% according to CTP. But for food to go the proportions are practically reversed, with 55% of food-to-go shoppers male.

They are also younger than the average c-store shopper, with 10% of food-to-go shoppers describing themselves as students (compared with 5% in the average c-store sample), and 14% describing themselves as ‘young, free and single’.

“The food-to-go mission attracts more males than the average customer base,” says Littler. “They tend to be younger, with the under-35s more likely to happily spend on food and drink to go.

“Many are used to the world of £2.50 freshly made lattes and made-to-order sandwiches and salads which food outlets offer, making it hard for a convenience store to compete, especially for the lucrative lunchtime mission. Keeping range fresh and appealing is key and traditional packaged sandwich will not set you apart from the crowd.”

The element of surprise

There is a reasonable degree of planning about food-to-go purchases (about 50% of shoppers in both supermarket and symbol c-stores had planned to buy food to go there), but as many as two in five food-to-go shoppers say they are ‘just passing by’.

Littler’s advice is to see this as an opportunity to shout about your food to go. “Ensure you advertise any change or new products in your food-to-go offer. With two-in-five c-store food-to-go shopping trips unplanned, external signage needs to interrupt potential shoppers and inspire them to come inside. A tempting tasty treat when you’re peckish is a big driver of shopping and consumer behaviour!”


HIM’s study interviewed 300 food to go shoppers at symbol stores, 300 at multiple supermarket-owned convenience stores and 200 shoppers at sandwich/coffee shop chains to give a benchmark.

Crucially, the research indicates that the reasons shoppers visit their favourite c-store for food to go are broadly similar to why they visit for other reasons: with convenient location, ‘it’s my regular store’ and ‘I can get everything I need here’ among the leading reasons to visit. So a lot of the quick wins can be achieved by converting regular customers into food-to-go shoppers, rather than attracting new shoppers from outside.

So what are food to go shoppers looking for in c-stores? As in most product areas, quality and price score highly, with 42% of shoppers saying quality and 40% saying price. Freshness of food comes next (28%), followed by range (26%).

Meal deals and healthy options are important, too (both scoring with 10% of shoppers), but the top four elements should be given priority in your offer.

Sales vary at different times of day of course, with the average c-store food-to-go sale being 2.7 items in the morning and three at lunchtime. While coffee and bread are popular in the morning, sandwiches and water are actually more common purchases. Sandwiches grow further in importance at lunchtime, featuring in 18% of baskets, with savoury snacks (21%) and soft drinks (19%) also vital items. For HIM, the key opportunity for suppliers is to be the ‘third item’ in food-to-go shoppers’ baskets.

So sandwiches are crucial, although shoppers are promiscuous here, with 63% switching regularly between pre-prepared and fresh. The key usually turns out to be speed, with 81% saying that ease of shop - being in and out as quickly as possible - is important to them.

The final learning is about the importance of impulse purchasing. When asked what would encourage shoppers to buy an extra item, 11% say they would if they saw it in the till area, with a further 8% saying they would if it was in the queuing area.

Food to Go

Key Findings

One in four UK adults have bought food to go from c-stores within the past seven days

Food to go is the third most valuable mission to convenience stores (after top-up and newsagent/CTN)

Last year it accounted for 1.1 billion trips to convenience stores, although this was a decline of 64 million trips on the previous year

Despite the blip in 2014-15, food to go in convenience is still predicted to grow during the next five years

Food-to-go shoppers use multiple channels - shoppers who bought into the category at c-stores also use fast food outlets, high street coffee/sandwich chains and other convenience stores for their food to go

About 21% of shoppers in transient stores are on a food-to-go mission, compared with 13% in neighbourhood stores.

Shopper insight

Make the most of mission creep

When asked why shoppers choose a particular store for their food-to-go purchases, 20% say it is because it is the closest store to home, and 23% say it is the closest store to work.

When the ‘convenience’ factor is taken out, the three most common reasons are ‘It’s my regular store’, ‘I can get everything I need here’, and ‘the prices’. In other words, food-to-go purchasers are massively influenced by the fact that they are already visiting their favourite c-store for other shopping missions.

“Many shoppers who buy food to go in c-stores are already shopping there for different shopping missions, meaning many stores already have a willing customer base, they just may not yet be maximising spend through this food-to-go mission,” reasons HIM’s Katie Littler. “Store owners should think about who their shoppers are, and talk to them about what their food-to-go needs are. Is the local competition already delivering, or not?

“A fully-fledged hot food-to-go offer may not be relevant in your stores, but often there is at least one element of the mission which will be; ‘hot drinks & morning pastry’, ‘snacking’ or ‘healthy meal accompaniments’.”