Eating in has become the new eating out thanks to the credit crunch - and this can only be good news for petrol retailers.

Shoppers are increasingly swapping forking out for a restaurant meal for the "big night in". And the local forecourt is the perfect place to stock up on those evening essentials such as a ready meal or bottle of wine. In addition, customers are actively trading up and looking for more premium products in-store.

Andy Foweather, sales director for General Mills UK, says: "People aspire to having the same food at home as they do in restaurants. And, in these uncertain times, UK consumers are opting to stay at home more, treating themselves to quality food at the weekends as an alternative to eating out."

With this in mind, General Mills recently launched Wanchai Ferry - a brand with over 30 years’ history in China. The product is a recipe kit for creating Chinese dishes and comes in three varieties: xiang gu chicken - a shitake mushrooms in a black bean & ginger sauce; kung pao chicken - crunchy toasted peanuts in a szechuan sauce; and bo luo pork - pineapple in a fruity Cantonese sauce (rrp £3.89). Shoppers buy the meat and vegetables separately, with everything else they need for the meal contained in the Wanchai Ferry box. The launch is being backed by a £4m marketing programme including national TV. Foweather adds: "Our ambition is to grow Wanchai Ferry into an £8m-plus brand in the first year. It delivers a new weekend occasion for home-cooked Chinese food and, as a result, will deliver incremental sales growth to the Oriental category."

Premier Foods is also expanding its Oriental range, adding five lines to its Sharwood’s Chinese and Indian sauce selection. The company says the cooking sauce and accompaniments category is currently worth £945m and is growing at 5.5%, while the Sharwood’s brand is worth £80.6m and accounts for 8.5% of the market (IRI, 52 w/e Jan 25).

Sharwood’s has added two new flavours to its Chinese sauce range - Beijing chilli bean and Cantonese curry - and the company says the range is also being segmented into key Chinese regions including Beijing, Szechuan and Canton to highlight the authenticity of the recipes. The packaging will be updated for a more modern and premium look. In Indian sauces, it has introduced pineapple & coconut curry, black pepper masala and special edition Goan vindaloo (rrp £1.67). The company says spicy variants are doing particularly well, with jalfrezi growing at 10.8% year on year (IRI 52 w/e Feb 23).

Paul Bright, Sharwoods’ brand controller, says: "Our new products are set to appeal to customers looking for a real taste of adventure and will help retailers gain profit from their cooking sauces offering."

Birds Eye is also targeting the dinner sector with its pink salmon fish fingers, marketed as a ’grown-up’ fish finger, rrp £2.49 for a pack of 10. Trade marketing controller for Birds Eye, Lawrence Trist, says: "Bringing an older consumer into the category and providing an interesting new taste, it’s no surprise that our salmon fish fingers have been well received so far and we are confident we’ll see their success continue with the backing of extensive marketing support."

Birds Eye recently added a new range of products to its Steakhouse brand. The company says it has been developed "to bring that distinctive flame-grilled taste you get at many popular family restaurants to everyday family meal times - straight from the freezer". The six variants include Tennessee style BBQ ribs and sticky Chinatown chicken, all with a rrp of £2.99. Matt Richards, brand manager at Birds Eye, adds: "We believe there is a key opportunity for retailers to tempt people ’in’ from ’out of home’. We know our consumers love going to places like Harvester, TGI Fridays and Nandos where it’s all about the flavour and sense of occasion. And they will be able to have this at home - straight from the freezer."

But despite the appeal of the big night in, evidence suggests retailers still aren’t making the most of it. According to Harris International Marketing’s Convenience Tracking Programme 2008, just 4% of shoppers said their primary mission for visiting a c-store was buying a meal to eat that evening. This compares to 39% who were doing a top-up shop, 22% who were buying food ’for now’ and 5% who were buying fuel.

One site which has embraced the big night in idea is Budgens Nailsea near Bristol, which is owned by Forecourt Trader of the Year 2008 winners Philip and Lesley Tout. The site’s store manager Matt Venn says: "This area is a real footfall driver, from ready meals for those who don’t want to cook to fresh food for those who do. We have a wide range of product. Fresh and chilled is definitely a growth area - especially now people are increasingly looking for alternatives to going out."

On the drinks side, wine sales are officially down. According to the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, overall wine sales in the off-trade fell by 1% in the year to the end of March 2009. C-stores and forecourts sold 6% fewer bottles in the same period compared to the previous year. Of course these figures are slightly skewed as they do not include Easter 2009.

A spokesman for the Association says: "One of the issues is obviously that people have less money to spend. But there has also been price inflation for the alcohol category in general. One of the big factors is tax increases, such as excise duty - last year’s budget introduced a 9% increase in duty on all alcohol. Then there was the 8% increase in November (4% for spirits) which is set to remain once VAT returns to its full rate. On top of that we’re seeing the start of a duty escalator, 2% above the rate of inflation for four years. If you add all these things together you’re looking at excise duty rates going up by as much as 40% by 2012. The average bottle of wine has been hit pretty hard, and at a time when people are looking to reduce their spending."

David Mallory, impulse channel controller at E&J Gallo Winery, says it is vital for retailers to market alcohol at their stores by using attractive displays, offers and cross merchandising. He says: "It’s essential to make the catetory come alive, put wine next to flowers and ready meals etc, get people thinking about the whole package. We’re in recessionary times, but we’ve got to hope that the credit crunch will mean more people are staying in and looking at making impulse purchases. Forecourts are an ideal place for these, and there’s a great opportunity for growth."

Gallo is launching a new premium offering into the convenience market this month (see page 40).

Foster’s EMEA has also launched a cash and carry campaign to help drive summer wine sales.

Focusing on Rosemount Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, it also includes wines from Gabbiano, Lindemans, Beringer and Yellowglen Pink Sparkling. Cash and carries in the Landmark and Nisa Today’s groups are running the campaign until May 29. Four thousand pos kits are being distributed to retailers. These include a "Win your summer break" promotion, giving consumers the opportunity to text to win £1,000 towards a summer holiday. Two winners will be selected from the entries and proof of purchase will be needed to redeem the cash prize. Neil Barker, commercial director UK & Ireland at Foster’s EMEA, says: "Light and refreshing styles are in huge growth and we’re helping our customers to maximise this growing consumer trend. The competition mechanic perfectly reflects the summer theme and provides an excellent competition for consumers, giving them an added incentive to purchase."

Dror Nativ, Spar UK wine trading manager, says consumers are changing their habits due to the credit crunch. He explains: "When people feel the squeeze they tend to have smaller weekly shops at the supermarket and end up topping up more at their local convenience store.

"Our biggest challenge is ensuring that our wine range remains relevant and attractive to our customers at a time when they have less money to spend." According to Nativ, the beers, wines and spirits category makes up 17% of Spar’s total sales, up slightly on the previous year. Spar has a Valencia wine promotion in store with three bottles for £10.

== Finally, don’t forget dessert ==

Ben & Jerry’s has launched phish food frozen yogurt, which it describes as a lower fat alternative of the ’legendairy’ phish food ice cream.

Vicky Willis, the company’s brand manager, says: "We’re aiming to add value to the category by driving sales with consumers who love the taste of Ben & Jerry’s but are looking for a lighter alternative, or as we like to say ’less body more soul’." It is available in 500ml tubs, rrp £4.19.


=== primary shopping missions at c-stores ===

proportion of actual visit

shoppers in spend frequency

each mission (£) (/wk)

Top up 39% £6.37 4.1

Food for Now 22% £4.04 3.7

Entertainment 1% £6.40 3.5

Meal for tonight 4% £6.14 3.6

Celebration 2% £4.63 3.0

Newsagent 28% £4.15 4.4

Fuel 5% £4.31 2.4

Source: HIM CTP 2008