ATLANTA -- Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits is using its business relationship with Kroger Co., Cincinnati, as a laboratory to determine what supermarkets need and want from food-service partners.
The quick-service chain, a division of America's Favorite Chicken Co. here, has stores inside 18 Kroger units. Thirteen are in Krogers in the Atlanta market; three in Macon, Ga.; one in Dallas, and one in Columbus, Ohio.
Part of the educational project, launched this fall, involves running focus groups and testing different merchandising techniques in Kroger stores, said Jane Albright, Popeyes' newly appointed supermarket venue specialist, in an interview with SN.
On the schedule for testing are merchandising elements such as Popeyes' chicken dinners in hot holding cases near checkout stands, or in chilled and, possibly, frozen form in other parts of the store, Albright said.
Cross-couponing with departments within the supermarket, too, is being tested. (As reported in the Nov. 4 issue of SN, Popeyes has begun a coupon deal with the video department in two Kroger units.)
To bulk up its supermarket knowledge, Popeyes assembled a cross-functional team of its own employees to figure out what might and might not work to maximize sales inside supermarkets.
Albright heads the team that includes representatives from Popeyes' research and development, administration, consumer research, finance and marketing departments. Albright's experience is in operations. Before joining Popeyes, she was with Pizza Hut, Irvine, Calif., and later was a consultant to Hardee's, Rocky Mount, N.C.
"We have to start acting like we're inside a supermarket. It's a lot different than operating a freestanding Popeyes that is a destination," Albright said.
While some loyal Popeyes customers come into the supermarket solely for Popeyes' products, most sales are generated by snagging the shopper who has come there to pick up grocery items, she said.
And even though the typical supermarket has a tremendous volume of traffic, Popeyes has found that its restaurants within supermarkets chalk up less sales volume that its freestanding units, Albright said.
The restaurant chain recognizes that it has barely scratched the surface when it comes to capitalizing on supermarket traffic, Albright noted.
"We're going back to school, so to speak, to try to really understand supermarkets so we can find the best way to serve supermarket customers and provide them with convenient meal solutions," she said.
"We can learn from other vendors who sell in the supermarket venue, like Coca-Cola, which is right up front in a single-serve, self-service case," she added.
"If we had a hot case near the register, like the beverage companies have, people could pick up a two-piece chicken dinner on their way out after they've got their grocery shopping done. If they came in just for milk and bread, they could also grab a Popeyes product from that case up front and pay at checkout. They wouldn't have to come over to Popeyes in the front corner," she said.
When Popeyes conducted consumer research and ran some focus groups with Kroger shoppers, it found out how important convenience is to the customer.
"Most of what we learned in focus groups confirmed what we've been talking about, but I was a little surprised that customers kept saying they wanted more convenience. For example, a lot of shoppers told us they don't want to pay at two different locations. They don't want to do their grocery shopping, pay for that, and then come over to Popeyes and take out their pocketbook or wallet again," Albright said.
"Other than that, there were no surprises. Consumers said they want fresh, restaurant-quality food at a reasonable price, but a lot of surveys have shown that," she said.
Most Kroger customers who talked to Popeyes said they would buy the product if it were convenient to do so.
"Remember, Popeyes' customers are used to driving up to a drive-through window," Albright said.
"Our [the supermarket venue team's] No. 1 priority right now is to find out how the supermarket customer thinks," she added.
Popeyes is sharpening its focus on supermarket partnerships because it sees that venue as ripe for the home meal replacement market, Albright said.
"The time is right. Supermarkets are very interested in gaining back the part of the food dollar they've lost to restaurants and we can help," she said.
The chicken chain is considering expanding its variety of side dishes and also is looking at the possibility of offering roast chicken in addition to the fried product it has built its name on, Albright said.
"We'll also be looking at more for kids, promotions and menus," she said. "We need to keep fresh and innovative in order to make our partnership with Kroger even better than it is."