The most successful restaurant brands have recognized that their stores are not just branded boxes. Each store is a collection of many individual “customer operating zones.” Customers operate differently in different zones, they behave differently in each zone. Their needs, expectations and attitudes are different. Based on that, your business objectives should differ on a zone-to-zone basis.

So each of these unique zones turns out to be right for one merchandising strategy, and dead wrong for another. By identifying these zones and understanding how customers behave in each zone, you can craft zone-specific communications and merchandising strategies that are keenly responsive to how customers use these zones, and therefore be more effective at realizing your desired business objectives. In addition, the customer experience will be faster, easier, and more enjoyable.

The concept of developing merchandising and communications strategies based on “customer operating zones” is a blend of science and creativity that can be used to help restaurant brands manage the entire customer experience (interior and drive-thru). A curb to curb journey. The acronym “COZI” (Customer Operating Zone Improvement) captures the multi-step process that follows:

COZI Strategic Discipline

1. Zone Assessment. Understand your environment and your customers. Begin by identifying all the COZI zones along the path-to-purchase. What are your “zones of opportunity?” Using a quick-service or fast-casual restaurant interior as one example, these zones along the path-to-purchase typically include the following:

  • Street Zone
  • Entry Zone
  • Line-Up Zone
  • Menu Zone
  • Order/Pay Zone
  • Pick-Up Zone
  • Beverage Zone
  • Dine-In Zone
  • Exit Zone


And there are certainly others, such as curbside pick-up, take-out, self-service, restrooms, parking, etc.

Note how customers use and interact with these zones. Measure the time they spend in each zone. For each zone probe to discover customer needs, expectations, attitudes and behaviors. What problems do they encounter in these zones? Do they understand what’s being communicated to them? Here’s where customer interviews and ethnographic studies can be helpful.

King-Casey chart.

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

2. Zone Strategy. 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 the 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? The message should be responsive to how customers use this zone (i.e., you don’t want a long and detailed message in the entry zone, as research shows that customers only take 2–3 seconds to view this message)

Physical Element. What is the physical nature of communications in this zone that will best communicate your message? What would work best in this zone? A window decal? A poster? A counter mat?  Tray liner?

Design Development. Note that the last step in the zone strategy process is design (the creation of copy, graphics, images, typography, branding, etc.). This is what the communication 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 development. Visually attractive merchandising does not necessarily result in business improvement.

3. Zone Implementation. By now you have identified your business objectives, you know what you want to say, and you know how you are going to say it. During this step you fine-tune and finalize your zone merchandising elements. Evaluate the concepts internally and get team consensus. Keep things objective by conducting consumer research or doing a store test to validate the concepts.  Measure sales increases, customer flow, throughput, and return on investment. The results of these tests are useful in convincing franchisees that this is worth the time, effort and investment.

4. Improvement and 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 business results. Feed these “lessons learned” back into the planning process (the next round of efforts will benefit from what you learned). Finally, roll-out your enhanced customer zone merchandising strategy to other stores in the system.

The Last Word

Remember, don’t think “holistically” about your restaurant environment and merchandising. Start thinking zones. It’s a sure-fire way to optimize your merchandising strategies and drive sales.

Tom Cook is a Principal of King-Casey, a restaurant and foodservice business improvement firm.  King-Casey 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 more information, visit or contact Tom Cook at 203/571-1776 or

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