Before the Holiday Rush

Originally posted at: November 2015

Article by Conor Morris featuring iFranchise Group CEO Mark Siebert:

With consumers looking to limited-service brands for a convenient meal amid the bustle of holiday shopping, operators prepare for the onslaught.

Those in the world of customer service know all too well the stress that the holiday season brings: long lines of customers, clogged parking lots, and sometimes hangry (hungry and angry) shoppers.

To accommodate the huge jump in traffic, businesses across America start hiring and training large levels of new staff well in advance of November each year. Limited-service brands are no different—especially those in malls, which see huge spikes in customer traffic in November and December each year.

Eating out at a quick serve or fast casual on Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve may fly in the face of traditional American holiday culture, but the numbers don’t lie: Americans eat out or bring home food a lot during the holiday season.

Mark Siebert, CEO and founder of franchise consultancy iFranchise Group, says concepts like Boston Market and Honeybaked Ham especially net plenty of holiday-specific traffic by specializing in food that mimics holiday meals (whole hams, rotisserie chickens, etc.). Siebert says the traditional notion of the matriarch or patriarch of a family making a home-cooked meal in November or December has been challenged by the foodservice industry and people’s eating habits in recent years.

“There are 33 million-plus Americans who get some portion of their Thanksgiving meal at a restaurant … either on Black Friday or on Thanksgiving when they’re doing their shopping,” Siebert says. “One in 10 people dines out on Christmas Eve.”

Mark Demis, director of development and real estate for HoneyBaked Ham, says HoneyBaked Ham is heavily seasonal with its sales and staffing—so much so that roughly 70 percent of all sales system-wide for the franchise coincide with three holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. Demis says HoneyBaked Ham cafés across the country undergo dramatic restructuring of their counter setup before the holidays each year to more efficiently process the orders of holiday crowds who visit the food retailer.

“There can be up to five, six, seven stations where you can help customers on either side, so we can have up to 10–14 serving stations on each side of the register,” he says.

In order to handle that increased demand for HoneyBaked’s products, Demis says, the company makes a large increase in the number of sales associates and back-of-house staff each year, typically starting training in early fall.

Kim Costa, job search coach at employment website Snagajob, says that over this holiday season, she expects to see increases in hiring across the board for many businesses, including limited-service restaurants. She also notes a trend with businesses increasing their hourly employee salaries and adding more employees during the holidays in the last two or three years based on survey data.

However, this year, according to Snagajob’s 2015 holiday survey, average wages across retail ($9.68), restaurant ($9.33), and hospitality ($10.97) are down nearly 5 percent compared with 2014.

Sbarro, a New York–style pizza chain that has long made malls a real estate priority, is another franchise that sees a big bump in sales during the holiday season. Anne Pritz, chief marketing officer for Sbarro, says the brand’s average weekly sales volume goes up 30–35 percent in the final weeks of the year. “It’s very important to our business,” Pritz says.

Harry Erardi, vice president of training and operational support for Sbarro, says Sbarro’s hiring practices also ramp up before the holiday season each year; typically the franchise increases its staffing levels by about 20 percent for the holiday season.

Siebert says limited-time offers and special holiday-time products are a good way to bring people to quick serves during the holiday season. More than that, he adds, they’re a good business practice. He says customers want to see menus kept fresh with seasonal items, like McDonald’s Eggnog shake, which is rolled out for the holiday season.

“Menu freshness is a big part of keeping people coming back,” Siebert says. “The companies that do this [know] that they introduce a level of increased operational complexity to the preparation of some of these seasonal items, but at the same time they’re doing it, knowing … all the other sales that are going to accompany that.”

To that effect, Sbarro has a special limited-time pie it will be rolling out this holiday season: a holiday-colored pizza with red and green peppers and sesame seeds.

HoneyBaked Ham doesn’t bring in many new products outside of a few seasonal side items, Demis says, but it does attempt to bring extra folks into its stores by providing holiday deals focused around selling its “hero product”— hams—in tandem with discount-priced sides and desserts. Sbarro offers similar deals, which Pritz calls “holiday survival coupons,” to net traffic from hungry, tired shoppers.

Costa recommends that brands start as early as possible with preparing for the holiday season.

Sbarro sets up a detailed calendar for how the brand will tackle holiday traffic, staffing, and holiday deals each year, Erardi says.

And this increase in holiday business isn’t just an American thing. Siebert says KFC restaurants in Japan, for example, have seen huge success in the holiday market after a PR campaign many years ago persuaded some Japanese consumers that fried chicken is a typical holiday meal.

“In front of every KFC or almost every one [during the holidays], you’d see a plastic statue of Colonel Sanders wearing a Christmas hat,” Siebert says.


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