You could say that food to go has "gone viral" in the UK, were it not for the negative food safety connotations of that expression.

The fact is that you can pick up a takeaway snack and a drink almost anywhere you go, from the local petrol forecourts to the railway stations, supermarket convenience stores, newsagents, DIY shops, pubs and fast food restaurants. And of course baker’s shops, sandwich shops and cafés.

All that competition means that a dog-eared cheese sandwich and a bag of crisps just isn’t going to cut the mustard with consumers. So how do you make your food to go offer compelling enough to stand out from the competition?

That’s an issue with which the research consultancy Harris International Marketing (him!) frequently grapples as it tracks trends and consumer behaviour in the food-to-go market. The London-based consultancy recently took British Baker and suppliers from across the food industry on a whistle-stop tour around 21 of London’s food-to-go outlets, to identify examples of best-practice. The group included delegates from companies including Ginsters, United Biscuits, Kerry Foods, Nestlé Waters, Cuisine de France and Kelloggs, all keen to keep on top of trends in the booming food-to-go sector.

Ports of call included chains Greggs, Subway, Pret and EAT, independent outlets in the local Leather Lane market area, non-specialists, such as Boots and WHSmith, coffee shops such as Caffè Nero, supermarkets Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and restaurant-led concepts Leon and Itsu.

Many retailers were missing out on a golden opportunity for sales by not opening early enough in the day to cater for the breakfast rush, or closing before the evening rush, him! CEO Mike Greene told the group. Some 55% of people leave home without breakfast, according to him! statistics, and will be looking for a snack on the way to work. They may even stock up for the rest of the day at the outlet where they buy breakfast, Greene suggested.

Indeed, many operators visited on the tour had now cottoned on to the opportunity offered by breakfast, with Greggs, for example, heavily promoting its breakfast offer through pictures in its windows.

Greene also told the group to look out for "time of day" menus and merchandising as a key device to add variety to an offer, boost footfall and make the most of the opportunity offered by each part of the day for associated purchases, he said.

And examples of retailers on the tour who had this covered were Leon and Sainsbury’s Fresh Kitchen, both of which had interchangeable chalk boards hanging from the ceilings. Menus could be slotted in and out depending on the time of the day for breakfast, lunch and again in the evening.

Queue times were another battleground for food-to-go operators, Greene said. There was no length of time that customers found it acceptable to wait. The trick was to process customers’ orders as fast as possible, and to manage expectations. EAT was one of the outlets on the tour that was addressing the issue of customers’ expectations. Labels on its hot food lines gave clear instructions of cooking times: "Eat hot. Allow 3 minutes to toast". EAT also had an express checkout for busy times of the day to ease queues.

And EAT and Pret were among retailers on the tour which offered the time-saving option of wave and pay facilities, where customers can wave their plastic cards at a reader to pay for items without entering a pin number.

Meanwhile, retailer Boots stood out for the variety of food and drink options included in its meal deal offer a total of 450 lines is included in its range. The counter design and layout of the various food-to-go outlets also came under scrutiny from the group. Pret was commended for a good layout and clear signage, with hot food included in the main product flow. Its impulse items were well situated for add-on sales, as they were right at the counter for the customer to pick up at the last minute while paying. Indeed, Pret and EAT were among the chains that went to the top of the class in the group’s estimation after the food-to-go tour.

But even in the most sophisticated offer, there is room for improvement. As Mike Greene commented: "You cannot play at food to go. To get it right you need to be constantly evolving, to think in the mindset of all the different consumer groups that might use your service. Many stores are missing golden opportunities by not understanding consumer behaviour."

Get into your customers’ mindset

n Nine million people in the UK work outside the 9am-5pm routine are you opening your outlet when they need you?
n Need for speed: everyone is busy. Even 63% of unemployed people say they are too busy to do the things that they need to do
n Provide a variety of seating configurations. Customers eating alone might prefer to sit facing a column, according to him!
n Offer facilities aimed at various customer groups for example wi-fi, high chairs for babies etc
n Make premises easy to navigate no awkward doorways, space around counters, easy-to-access seating
What you need to invest in?
n Staff training
n Product development
n Equipment
n Marketing
n Accept wastage

n Embrace technology and new avenues for communication
n Facebook pages
n Twitter accounts
n Smart phone ordering
n Downloadable coupons
n Contactless payment is ideal for speedy, convenience transactions. It is in use with many providers including EAT, Boots, Starbucks and Subway. Once customers have tried they are very loyal to making payment this way, according to him!

Price is not the only consideration

A customer’s decision to chose one outlet over another is driven by these five key factors:
1. Quality
2. Freshness
3. Quick service
4. Excellent hygiene
5. Inexpensive

Other drivers:
1. Friendly service
2. Attractive promotions
3. Being able to customise purchases
Source: him! research

Overseas examples of best-practice

l Mobil New Zealand offers "feed the family for $15" meal deals trading customers up to bigger baskets
l Coles/Shell Australia: "Meal deals will never be optimised until all component products are within arm’s length of each other." Keep the products together within the arc of an elbow
l QuikTrip in America advertises take-home dinner options on its fuel pumps. LCD screens in-store also tempt customers with images of cream swirled into the coffee
l McDonald’s McCafé in New Zealand advertises as the customer’s "third place" home, work, McCafé

UK examples of best-practice

l Wetherspoons offers breakfast, a children’s menu and has adopted technology such as an iphone app
l Shell prompts customers to buy breakfast in POS above its newspaper rack
l McDonald’s aims to have the order in a customer’s hand within 90 seconds using new technologies such as a self-ordering kiosk and automated drinks machines, which automatically fill the cup as an order is placed
l Starbucks’ staff use handheld devices to take orders directly from waiting customers when queues are long

What opportunities are you missing?

Breakfast: Are you opening early enough? 55% of people leave home without having breakfast. Also, they may decide to stock up on food to get through the rest of the day when buying breakfast.
Lunch: 47% of people bring a packed lunch into work. Can you convert this group into purchasers from your shop?
Evening: Are you closing too early? You might be missing out on early evening/after work sales. Could you offer some simple take-home dinner options?

Market Size (him! stats)

n The UK foodservice sector is estimated to be worth £33.2bn and is commanding an increasing proportion of consumer spend.
n The market is expected to continue to grow and equal the size of the UK food retail market in terms of value by 2012.