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Start Thinking About Customer Operating Zones

How to develop path-to-purchase foodservice communications that increase sales.

Tom Cook, King-Casey

Few would dispute that the typical convenience store takes a comprehensive approach to its foodservice communications. That's the problem — quantity vs. quality. To be truly effective, c-store path to purchase (P2P) communication strategies must be developed based on understanding customers and how they operate (use and interact) within each "zone" in the store.

The most successful retail concepts have recognized that their stores are not just branded boxes; each store is a collection of many individual "customer operating zones." Customers behave differently in each zone. Their needs and expectations are different. Their retail experience is different from one zone to the next. Each of these unique zones is right for one merchandising strategy and dead wrong for another.

By identifying these zones, understanding how customers behave in each zone and establishing specific business goals for each zone, you can craft zone-specific P2P merchandising strategies that are responsive to how customers use these zones and designed to achieve specific business objectives. This makes the customer experience faster, easier and more enjoyable, while distinguishing your brand and maximizing business results.

THE COZI PROCESS The concept of developing P2P merchandising and communication strategies based on customer operating zones was pioneered by King-Casey decades ago. This blend of science and creativity is used to help retail stores manage the entire customer P2P experience — a curb-to-curb journey.

The acronym COZI (Customer Operating Zone Improvement) captures the methodology. COZI involves a multistep process, as follows:

Step 1: Conduct Zone Assessment The first step is to understand your selling environment and your customers. Begin by identifying all the COZI zones within your store. What are your zones of opportunity? A typical c-store is likely to have the following zones in which to merchandise its foodservice offerings:

  • Street Zone

  • Forecourt & Pump Zone

  • Entry Zone

  • Foodservice Zone

  • Grab & Go Zone

  • Hot Beverage Zone

  • Fountain Zone

  • Cooler Zone (Beer Cave)

  • Pay Zone

  • Exit Zone

Once all your zones are identified, note how customers use and interact with these zones. Measure the time they spend in each zone. Probe to discover customer needs, expectations, attitudes and behaviors for each zone. What problems do they encounter in these zones? Do they understand what's being communicated to them? Here's where consumer focus groups, interviews and video tracking studies can be very helpful.

Now, walk around the store and do an assessment of your current foodservice P2P merchandising and communications. Are your foodservice messaging strategies appropriate for the zones they call home? Do you have the right message for the right zone? How can messages in each zone be optimized to drive sales?

Step 2: Develop Zone Strategies This step consists of three elements: what is it that you want to achieve; what is it that you want to say; and how you are going to say it?

Business Objective — Begin by identifying your foodservice business strategy for each of the zones. What is it that you hope to achieve in this zone? How will you measure improvement? Note that your business objectives may vary from zone to zone.

Message Content — What is it that you must communicate to achieve your business objectives for this zone? Your foodservice message should be responsive to how customers use this zone. For example, you don't want a long and detailed message in the entry zone as research tells us that customers only take 2-3 seconds to view this message.

Physical Element — What is the physical nature of communications in each zone that will best communicate your message? A poster? A window decal? Aisle toppers? Digital signage?

Step 3: Develop Design Solutions Note that the last step in the zone strategy process is design — creating graphics, images, typography, branding, displays, etc. This is what your foodservice communications will look and feel like.

It's tempting to jump straight to this step, but don’t fall into this trap. Design should be driven by thoughtful analysis and strategy. High-impact creative design does not necessarily result in improved business performance.

Step 4: Implement Zone Strategies By now, you have identified your foodservice business objectives, you know what you want to say, and you know how you are going to say it. During this step, finetune and finalize your P2P and zone merchandising elements. Evaluate the concepts and get team consensus. Keep things objective by using some form of research to validate the concepts with your customers. Select several stores that will serve as pilots for your optimized P2P communications. Monitor results during the test period. Measure sales increases, customer throughput and return on investment (ROI).

Step 5: Improve & Roll Out Continue to monitor key measures of success to identify opportunities for improvement. What's working? What's not? Why? Make modifications to optimize your business results. Feed these "lessons learned" back into the planning process. The next round of efforts will benefit from what you learned. Use research to find out from customers what's working and what’s not.

Finally, roll out your optimized P2P communications strategy to other stores in the system.

COZI ABSOLUTES From our experience with hundreds of initiatives, we can identify the key things you should absolutely do:

  • Avoid holistic P2P merchandising strategies. A store is a collection of many different customer zones, so identify your store's customer operating zones.

  • Understand exactly how customers make use of each zone. Customer research helps objectively evaluate customer behavior and identify opportunities for improvement.

  • Develop P2P merchandising strategies that are responsive to each zone.

  • Develop strategies that are designed to achieve specific business objectives and are responsive to customers' behavior in these zones.

  • Develop measures of success and monitor results. Measures will help determine ROI.

  • Based on results, enhance your strategies to continually improve outcomes and customer satisfaction.

Sounds simple? It's just common sense, you say. You're right! But it's amazing how many retail brands (even the smart ones) overlook the value of developing strategies based on customer operating zone improvement. It's time to start thinking in terms of customer zones. Tom Cook is a principal of King-Casey. Established in 1953, King-Casey is a restaurant and foodservice business improvement firm that provides strategic menu optimization advice and a range of services to help clients manage overall food and beverage offerings, affecting their positioning, reputation and business growth. For information, visit or contact Cook at (203) 571-1776 or

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