Submarine sandwich

As consumers increasingly clamor for quick, easy and accessible meals, convenience stores have a great opportunity to become go-to destinations for lunch. They are currently losing out to fast-food outlets, which have added fresh, healthier options for people on the move.

Quick-serve chains, including Chipotle, Subway, Starbucks and Panera Bread, now offer the types of fresh, healthier options people crave. They often prepare meals while you wait — sometimes while you watch — and they have added items that are lower in calories, more nutritious or both. Their challenge is to improve convenience, because many people do not have time to sit down for an enchilada or salad – and they are making big strides.

Fast-food outlets that do not specialize in sandwiches, which are naturally easy to carry, are adding more portable food options: Kentucky Fried Chicken is advertising a "Go Cup" that fits in a car's cup holder and can be filled with various types of chicken plus potato wedges at $2.49. It's being hawked as a snack, but could easily be a meal. Starbucks is trying something similar with its Seattle's Best Coffee drive-through chain. Its new menu includes pretzel sandwiches and hand-held savory pies stuffed with vegetables, spicy macaroni and cheese or eggs, cheese and potato.

Food at convenience stores, by contrast, is already easy, quick and accessible. The challenge is that it's not as fresh or tasty enough to make convenience stores a regular lunch destination. Although some gas stations and convenience stores, such as Rudy's Bar-B-Q in Texas, offer such delicious fare that people go there on dates, many still feature pre-wrapped sandwiches in unexciting flavors and a rotating rack of hot dogs.

As a result, consumers look to convenience stores for snacks but not lunch, according to research by The Hartman Group. That's partly because quick-serve outlets dominate the sandwich scene. Consumers also think fast-food restaurants offer tastier options. When flavor is an important consideration, 42 percent of people look to quick-serve outlets, while 31 percent look to convenience stores.

To compete, convenience stores could take note of what fast-food places are doing right. For example, preparing food while people watch makes it easier to convey the notion of freshness. Similarly, food and experience quality are enhanced when people are able to customize their food orders.

Convenience stores also could capitalize on shifting eating habits, including the fact that more people are busy and looking for food on the go. They are poised already to attract consumers beyond their traditional customer base of male shoppers aged 18 to 24, something Tyson Foods was aware of when it created tortilla wraps for the convenience store market. Convenience stores also could gain an edge from the fact that people are eating alone more often. Already 57 percent of the meals and snacks bought at convenience stores are eaten alone, far more than at quick-serve locations, where 30 percent of the food bought is eaten alone.

To take advantage of those trends and catch up with fast food, though, convenience stores need to think beyond pre-wrapped sandwiches to items that are still quick and easy but also appeal to consumers as higher quality and more flavorful. For example, these types of food could be eaten as indulgent snacks or made into meals: pre-cut fruit cups in single-serve packages, served with a fork; cut vegetables and hummus snack packs; fresh takes on bento boxes, such as a hardboiled egg, cheese and fruit combination; and smaller offerings of traditionally large dishes, such as single-serve pasta salads and half-sized sandwiches.

Convenience stores also need more thoughtfully designed interiors to set the right tone for quality and consumer engagement. The standard fluorescent lights and linoleum do not encourage people to picture themselves enjoying the food they're looking at.