One Sweet Ride

Five takeaways from visiting Hershey’s new Mobile Customer Insights Center.

October 03, 2018

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What could be more convenient than a snack-filled truck pulling right up to your door? NACS Daily editors were invited to get an up-close and personal look at Hershey’s chocolate-hued Mobile Customer Insights Center (MCIC) when it made a pit stop in Alexandria, Virginia, last week, during its inaugural U.S. tour.

The MCIC allows Hershey to bring convenience-specific insights directly to c-store partners that might not be able to travel to the company’s Global Customer Insights Center in Pennsylvania. At each stop along the road, two subject-matter experts share the company’s latest customer research and discuss category strategies, including everything from marketing calendars to store layout, checkout and queues.

At a September 27 media event, NACS staff had the opportunity to experience the MCIC firsthand. After a tour and research presentations, attendees heard from retail experts including Joe Sheetz, Sheetz CEO and NACS chairman; Todd Tillemans, president, U.S., Hershey; and Phil Stanley, chief sales officer, Hershey. Chris Blasinsky, content communications strategist for NACS, moderated the panel.

Here are five takeaways from our visit: 

  • Size. This is a large truck. The 53-foot, expandable tractor trailer fills 20 parking spaces, according to Alexis Garber, a Hershey category strategist who is traveling with the MCIC. And in real estate parlance, the MCIC is much more spacious than it looks from the outside. Our group fit comfortably in the expanded room, which houses several fully-stocked store-sized shelves, four presentation areas with video screens and a U-shaped conference table suitable for retail strategy discussions.
  • Snacking. The modern snacking model has changed, with a rising trend of lighter meals and more frequent snacking occasions. “Ninety percent of consumers are snacking each day,” Tillemans said. As consumers have become more health-conscious, Hershey is adding better-for-you snacks to its portfolio—such as SkinnyPop and Pirate’s Booty (subject to the planned acquisition of Pirate Brands, announced last month). The company also is combining items such as pretzels with brand favorites such as Reese’s pieces. Hershey research shows that 43% of c-store customers prefer a sweet/salty snack mix, said Ryan Shaffer, a category strategist with Hershey.
  • Setup. The inside of the MCIC mimics a c-store, with candy- and snack-aisle shelving demonstrating optimal product positioning: mints and gum at the top level, top sellers in the “strike zone” 15 degrees below eye level, and remaining brands aligned in a vertical format to help customers find items quickly. The MCIC stocks non-Hershey brands too, to provide a realistic model for convenience retailers.
  • Seasonality. More and more, holiday- and season-themed merchandise is an important contributor to c-store business. “A treat combined with … seasonal moments creates memories, and the candy plays an important role in that overall experience,” Tillemans said. “We see that as a growth opportunity if you get the right portfolio.” Seasons can be a trip driver as well, for instance when Halloween candy marketed at the gas pump entices customers to come inside the store, where they might find other items they need. Unlike grocery stores with larger formats, c-stores often need to be creative about making room for seasonal merchandise, but they are “getting better as a channel about space and flexibility,” according to Sheetz.
  • Sales. We know that salty, sweet and alternative snack sales are on the rise—up 2% to 4% in 2017 compared to the previous year, according to the NACS State of the Industry Report of 2017 Data. One way c-store retailers have successfully driven growth in these categories is by finding “the natural pairings customers really want,” Tillemans said, such as a Kit Kat-and-coffee combo that Hershey found had a “55% uplift” following in-store promotion. Look at the raw customer data to find what these pairings are, Sheetz advised. “Customers found that these things go together way before we did,” he said. 
The MCIC is back on the road, heading West. Tillemans said Hershey expects it will make 25 retailer visits before the end of the year.
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