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Sunderland’s catering options are outdated - time for some investment in the SOL’s facilities?

Paying in cash, beige food, crap beers, crammed concourses, and a contract that doesn’t allow for much wiggle room - Sunderland’s catering options need investment and overhaul, but is it forthcoming?

Sunderland AFC

The time is almost here. If you, like me, have been berating the catering options and service at the Stadium of Light for some time, good news may be on the horizon.

The club’s current catering contract with Molson Coors expires at the end of the 2019-20 season. Like the seat change project, the club has another big opportunity to improve the match day experience and improve the relationship with the fans.

However, be warned - the negotiation of a new contract or multiple contracts is only the start to improve the current offering at the Stadium of Light... and it all comes at a cost.

In the past I’ve conducted some independent fan experience assessment work, mainly in football stadiums in the UK. Sure, there is plenty to be critical of, but there is also some very good practice when it comes to catering, and the overall fan experience at other clubs.

Here’s what I think needs to change.

Sunderland v Portsmouth - Sky Bet League One Play-off - Semi Final - First Leg - Stadium of Light Photo by Simon Cooper/PA Images via Getty Images

EPOS – Electronic Point of Sale

An EPOS system is nothing new – simply the ability to pay by card or contactless on the concourse. Whilst the stadium is only 22 years old, the lack of EPOS has been startling omission when it comes to the match day concourse experience, and crucially, contributing to the club’s match day revenue. Research tell us the percentage of cash payments in the UK, in 2007, was 61%, falling to 34% in 2017 and forecasted to drop to 16% by 2027, whilst contactless payments will increase from 15% in 2017 to 36% in 2027. This is likely to be much higher in football stadiums, given the demographics of fans and the likely spend to generally be under £30.

However, EPOS comes at a cost. I know of another modern stadium (capacity around 30000) who recently upgraded to concourse EPOS and it cost in excess of £1million. Think of the infrastructure, the new tills and most importantly, a vastly improved WIFI connection. It’s a big investment, but should see big improvements in the speed and quality of service.

Other stadiums have developed mobile phone apps where food can be ordered (I know the club has tried this recently to a lesser extent).

Roker Report’s own Tom Albrighton reliably informs me this is how Ireland’s Aviva stadium works in general, avoiding cash transactions and long queues. Mark Campbell recently mentioned Spurs radical pour from the bottom technology, and other stadiums around Europe offer pre-loaded credit season cards. However, where digital technology is used, expensive infrastructure and maintenance is a must - it all comes at a price.

Creation of Shared Value (CSV)

CSV is a concept developed as recently as 2011. Porter and Kramer wrote in the Harvard Business Review about the bold claim that capitalism is under siege – in its pursuit for profits, major business is actually the cause for many social, environmental and economic problems. As consumers, we are more aware and more concerned than ever about the impact of our own hyper-consumption. Think single use plastics, deforestation and the exploitation of food producers.

However, big brands have started to take notice.

Previously, brands would talk about their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), but often, this was due to regulatory requirements forced upon them, or a reaction to the recent controversy, (VW’s approach to CSR has changed somewhat post emissions scandal). CSV is taking the CSR bulls**t words we read in annual financial reports and developing meaningful action. Big brands are realising its worth.

There are three distinct ways to do this: by reconceiving products and markets, redefining productivity in the value chain, and building supportive industry clusters at the company’s locations

So how can Sunderland implement a CSV model.

Sunderland v Portsmouth - Sky Bet League One Play-off - Semi Final - First Leg - Stadium of Light Photo by Simon Cooper/PA Images via Getty Images

1. Reconceive the market

The first step is a concerted effort to understand what fans want.

I understand research has already been conducted by RAWA to better understand what fans what in terms of catering. Whilst catering is based on a more traditional ‘transactional’ marketing approach (stock them high and sell sell sell) – big brands are creating profit from gathering and using consumer data more effectively. This leads to a more relationship based marketing approach. The emphasis in still on increasing transactions, but the amount of transactions increases organically, because the consumer is getting what they want.

2. Reconceive products

Maybe tin hat time.

I believe the typical match day food offering is outdated.

Beige, overpriced, high in carbohydrates/fat.

Yes, this kind of option needs to remain, but football fans are demanding more choice. Whilst I am not suggesting an adoption of Forest Green Rovers 100% vegan menu, I believe a healthier, more varied, seasonal concourse menu is needed.

3. Redefining productivity in the value chain and building supportive industry clusters at the company’s locations

I don’t want to get political but post-Brexit Britain offers very little for the North East and its SME’s. Institutions such as Sunderland AFC need to look after its own when it comes to suppliers.

In my previous article I talked about the club needing to build relationships in order to build a more sustainable relationship with its supporters. The club need to seek out local suppliers when it comes to appointing catering contracts.

Craft beer and microbreweries is an industry on the rise, and we have many successful ones on our doorstep in the North East. Given our history with VAUX, the club must consider such suppliers. The region also has a rich food heritage. On a recent visit to Middlesbrough FC (sorry) I divulged in chicken parmo in a bun - yes it was beige, yes it was mainly carbs and fat, but it means something much more than a stomach liner at the football match, and it was magnificent!

Sunderland and the North East need to embrace and celebration its heritage around food. This will also cut the amount of food miles the club consumes, a key concept on the CSV model using the catering industry.

Imagine, opening day of the season... ham and pease pudding stottie, a pink slice, washed down with a double maxim... then winter hits and you’re dreaming of your savaloy dip or panaculty!


Concourse design

Last season I queued for 17 minutes in the South Stand kiosk and waited another 4 minutes whilst the person serving me disappeared looking for my order.

Whilst the customer facing serving process obviously needs some work, the design of the kiosks on the concourse is basic and is inhibiting fast consumer transactions. Pre-order/prepayment concepts mentioned above would help the club anticipate demand but the physical layout of the kiosks is adding unnecessary delay to the transaction.

Again, it requires investment, but improvements should reduce waiting times and boost revenues in the short and longer term.

English Soccer - Coca Cola Football League Championship - Sunderland v Wolverhampton Wanderers Photo by AMA/Corbis via Getty Images

At the core of everything that I’ve mentioned in this article is investment. Whilst talk of takeovers and investment has been a theme this summer, the club is currently hamstrung by its current contract when it comes to catering, agreed way before the owners took over.

However, a huge opportunity is on the horizon - and its one the club should be planning for.

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