Are you starving workplace diners of information?

Sally Davis, Director at Thread Consultancy explores how the changing world of work is impacting catering and what solutions are available.

The need for a point of difference between caterers has never been more important.

According to the Telegraph, “we’re working harder, feel more stressed and have less security – but Brits are happier at work than ever before”. Employers are considering work life balance learning and development, family commitments outside of “the norm” and health, wellbeing and nourishment in a way that hasn’t been commonplace. Many companies are focussed on getting staff dining “right” in order to have a hugely positive  impact on the team and organisation, and all very well in organisations and buildings where employees must be in the office, or on the site to do their job. But, while average spend value in workplace catering is, in many cases increasing, the simultaneous rise in the number of client organisations encouraging agile and flexible working to attract and  retain talent and altering working patterns for greater productivity, is putting a squeeze on many caterers with zero cost and fixed price contracts.

In addition to the number of possible diners in the workplace reducing, this year-of-the-unexpected, has driven some harsh statistics around consumer spending. As a nation, we are saving less than ever, there is a reported average consumer credit debt of £7,370 which has increased since April. With the pool of possible consumers getting smaller, and the purses of those potential customers being squeezed even more, it is clear that any business involved in retailing must evolve its approach to product, merchandising and marketing.

Caterers in the workplace have so far been able to address some of the changing consumer demographics, expectations and consumption patterns by introducing technology – such as contactless payment options – and by being more food and wellbeing focussed to address the rising demand for sustainably grown products, minimal processing, natural ingredients, low sugar and ethically sourced products. Thanks to the allergen information legislation introduced three years ago, it seems that they’ve also been able to instil trust in a previously sceptical consumer group. Recent research by the FSA showed that nearly half of food allergic and intolerant consumers are more adventurous about eating out – whether during the day or in their leisure time.

However, these responses simply aren’t enough to drive sales that both caterers and organisations need for a sustainable business model. Two key areas that must be improved are that of a more modern approach to implementing culinary development plans fully on the ground, along with effective product marketing.

In order to respond to reducing volumes on workplace catering sites, head offices of national and international catering companies are often tasked with producing marketing material to roll out for their operational team to use on site. Where this was once driven by a desire to create consistency of brand message and professional looking collateral to promote offers, now, the people on the ground need practical support from marketing specialists to continue to reach potential and repeat consumers, and to create a point of difference against the backdrop of even more noise and competition than ever before. It is unlikely that the operational and marketing specialists can achieve this entirely on their own. The solution is for both parties to work closely together – to develop creative concepts and promote to the workforce by understanding their behaviours and working patterns.

The catering and hospitality sector can look once again to the retail sector for guidance to access markets and buyers effectively. First because they have embraced a move to “bricks and clicks” mentality, and adapted the way they operate to utilise digital platforms and technology to their advantage.

There are numerous ways catering operators can benefit from things such as online ordering to support them not only in engaging with their customers and gaining insights into when they think about their food and what appeals to them through website analytics, but also in contending with customer queues at peak service times. It can provide a whole new sales channel for operators through targeted marketing campaigns, allowing them to increase their capacity and sales without extending their footprint or resource and enable them to better manage their production and staffing levels.

Second, in today’s marketplace, caterers are under increased price pressures. Now, when inflation has been at 2.9% since May, (and 2.6% in July) – the highest in nearly four years, and the cost of quality raw products is rising (through increased transport, production costs and fluctuating value of £), we’re seeing a situation that is intensifying the squeeze on household budgets and caterers’ ability to deliver at multiple levels.

It’s clear that operators can only offer competitive pricing to a certain level before there is an impact on quality. Sophisticated menu engineering techniques should be applied to ensure menus are inviting and cost effective. Caterers must be able to demonstrate value to the customer, and where new innovative and freshly prepared concepts are visible, then the whole dining experience is valued and the possibility of repeat visits to the canteen far more likely. Competitively priced premium branded products are proven to grow average spends, but with the impending squeeze on disposable income, caterers must take care to offer choice, budget options and treats – as too many overpriced impulse buys is likely to lead to an increase in packed lunches from home, delivering a lack of footfall to the workplace dining room.

Ultimately, in workplace catering as in retail, the responses from caterers must provide consumers with interactive and convenient experiences through storytelling and merchandising, and potentially using digital technology to allow them to browse, consider and buy whenever and wherever.

By then targeting and personalising the food products and services to the customer’s specific wants and needs (where customers for example place more value on goods and services aligned with their individual values such as preferences for responsibly-sourced merchandise or local supply), operators can make employees feel connected to their workplace and its local community which in turn stimulates loyalty and habit.

This cannot be achieved by caterers on the ground alone without specialist marketing support from research and segmentation through to integrated campaigns. It cannot be achieved by dated head office mass marketing designed to catch all – promoting all the options a customer could possibly want and forcing them to either wade through it or simply ignore it.

After all, if we’re working harder, and feel more stressed than ever, the last thing any of us want is to work for our lunch and break times too.