let the good times roll

Roller grills are turning out large profits with the help of visual promotions and dedicated suppliers.

When a customer walks into their neighborhood convenience store, there are a few stapleitems they instantly look for—the soda fountain, the beverage coolers and the roller grill.

The roller grill has proven to be one of those steadfast programs that have brought retailers consistent profits formany years.

For San Antonio-based Tesoro Petroleum,the roller grill churns out about 40% of the chain’s overall foodservice sales.

“The roller grill is our primary foodservice offering,”said Scott Huggins, marketing programs specialist for Tesoro. “Customersautomatically associate c-stores and rollergrills—it’s been a source of great sales for us.”

The roller grill is a pillar of the c-store industry because it affords customers both a quick andconvenient solution for their hunger. Inyears past, the program was dominated by the hot dog.

But these days the variety of food products available for the grillis endless.

To Brand or Not to Brand

When choosing a roller grill program, retailers can look to foodservice suppliers, such as Sara Lee Foodservice, to provide a bevyof branded items.

“Most retailers in the c-store industry have a hot dog program,”said Sarah Babb, senior brand product manager of hot dogs andsmoked sausage for Sara Lee. “It’s a stronghold program that can be merchandised in numerous ways.”

Sara Lee has conducted surveys to find out what consumerswant to see on the roller grill. The company’slatest consumer research found that whena c-store offers a branded roller grillprogram, consumers are farmore likely to view thestore as higher in quality.

“Our research clearlyshows that consumers gravitate moretowards branded rollergrill offerings,” said Babb.”When c-stores carry brandedproducts, it elevates the storesimage and attracts the consumer tospend more for the added value.”Ball Park hot dogs and HillshireFarms smoked sausage have proven to bebig sellers for Sara Lee, since their consumers are drawn to a high-quality brand. Retailerstypically sell Sara Lee products for $1.29 to $1.99.Consumers are willing to pay the extra cents for a brandedproduct, such as Ball Park, then a generic item.

“We stick with the branded roller grill program because that’swhat most customers are aware of,” said Huggins. “We can drawin more people with a branded name and the merchandising support from Sara Lee.”

Visual appeal
One of the biggest appeals of roller grills is the merchandisingoptions available to retailers. Suppliers offer a variety of free signage and toppers to promote branded roller grill programs.

To increase the likelihood of incremental sales, Tesoro strategically positions its roller grill near the soda fountain. As customers grab a cold soda, they usually check out the current deal.

Tesoro utilizes a large number of signs to draw attention to thegrill’s quarterly and monthly promotions, starting with brightlycolored banners that advertise each month’s promotional deal instore windows. ID tags are used to clearly identify each producton the roller grill, helping customers decipher between the different types of sausage.

“Our flashy promotional sign near the roller grill drives a lotof traffic that way, ” said Huggins. “We drive return traffic withpromotions; some stores offer a meal-deal if the customer also purchase a soda. The signs and positioning help us see higher marginsfrom incremental sales.”

According to Dan Bendall, a principal of Food Strategy Inc.,roller grill items are typically impulse buys that result from thecustomer’s ability to see the products being merchandised in frontof them. Other hot food items are prepared away from the counterwhere customers can’t always see the items being made, but rollergrill products are right out in front, ready to go.

That visual appeal is also combined with a relatively long shelflife, making hot dogs and sausages sustainable for several hourswhen hot on the grill.

“You can load up the roller grill and not have a degrading foodproduct,” said Bendall. “One big factor is that it doesn’t take a lotof time to get the grill going. You can stock [the grill] to capacityand focus on making sales.”

Tesoro stores make sure to accompany roller grills with a complete condiment bar stocked with the freshest ingredients. Categorymanagers make sure each store has ample room to accommodatethe expansive condiment bar, which includes fresh chili, cheeseand traditional toppings. If a store can’t find adequate space to putthe condiments, they don’t get the program.

“Customers will take notice of a clean, well-organized condiment bar, which is a standard of our roller grill program,” saidHuggins. “It adds a nice complement to the roller grill offeringsand can really boost sales.”

America’s Favorite Food
Although the roller grill produces consistent sales throughoutthe year, with summer and baseball season approaching, retailerssee the highest sales in late spring, according to Babb. Some storeshold special promotions during the summer, while others focuson more long-term programs, such as Tulsa, Okla.-based chainQuikTrip Corp.

QuikTrip stores host a variety of roller grill offerings, including taquitos, egg rolls and various types of breadsticks. Hot dogsremain a feature item at the chain, with a wiener mobile stoppingby periodically for special promotions. During warmer weather,some stores set up a charcoal grill in the parking lot to attract customers to the offer.

“If you manage the category correctly, it will be a c-store staple,”said Mike Thornbrugh, QuikTrip public and government affairsmanager. “This program has longevity in the market, and if youpromote the product well, it will stay around for a long time.”

With the country becoming increasingly more health conscious,c-store operators have started to take notice of healthy eating trendsand are stocking products accordingly. The roller grill, whichcould traditionally be thought of as a place for quick and heartyeats, has become home to some wholesome options in addition tothe hot dog. As long as the roller grill can fulfill its quick and convenient promise, customers are willing to try vegetarian productssuch as tofu dogs and veggie burgers crafted in a cylindrical shape,according to Bendall.

“Our supplier knows our demands and volume,” saidThornbrugh. “They know we insist upon products that are the bestquality out there. And we rely on them to help us execute a successful roller grill program.”

Tesoro chains have different merchandising layouts dependingon each store’s location and competition, but every store has twostandard items always turning on its roller grills: Ball Park’s 8:1standard hot dogs and quarter-pound Ball Park hot dogs. Quarterlypromotions are run throughout the year, giving customers a tasteof a special menu item such as Hillshire Farms Smoked SausageCheddar Wurst or a one-third pound spicy sausage.

“We try to give an everyday good value on our regular hotdogs,” said Huggins. “Sometimes we market ‘two-for-a-buck’ hotdog days so we can drive customers in.”

Tesoro makes sure its roller grill items are competitively pricedin important markets. Prices for a regular hot dog can run between79 cents and 99 cents, with the quarter-pounders going for $1.49to $1.69.In stores with a high traffic volume, the company cantake a little more margin. Tesoro typically sees a 35% margin on itsroller grill products, but that can drop to 15% in a very competitive market.

The promotional opportunities available with the roller grillare endless. Many retailers take advantage of the program’s viability as an impulse buy destination because the low-priced productslend themselves to a variety of promotional deals. Since hot dogsand sausages are a low-cost food item t
o supply, they have better prompted margins than prepackaged goods such as candy barsand bottled water.

“The roller grill offers some of America’s favorite foods,” saidBabb. “It’s quick, easy to access and reasonably priced. Consumerscan grab the food and go, which reflects the foundation of the culture of convenience stores.”

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