By Pat Pape, Contributing Editor
Thanks to pay-at-the-pump technology, the average convenience store fuel customer spends five minutes or less filling up a gas tank. Some of them will come into the store and buy another product or two, but many simply replace the gas cap, get in and drive away.
Every convenience store that sells fuel faces the same challenge: how to successfully entice the fuel customer into the store for just one more purchase. Different convenience retailers have found success—and drawbacks— in the various tools available to attract attention at the forecourt.
CHANGES IN LATITUDES
Latitudes is a new, 15,000-square- foot convenience store on the edge of Albuquerque, N.M. Thanks to 24 fueling positions in front of the large store, the busy c-store gets plenty of opportunities to lure fuel-buying customers indoors. Recognizing the potential for increased sales, Latitudes developed and maintains a comprehensive communications effort at the pumps.
“Part of our business plan is offering a debit and cash discount,” said Ron Brown, president of Latitudes. “You can use your debit card at the pump, but if you want to pay with cash and get the discount, you have to come inside the store. Right now, about 35-40% of our business is in cash, which saves us on credit card fees. It also gives the customer a discount. This offer gives us one out of two chances to get them inside the store and sell them something.”
When it comes to providing information to fuel shoppers, Latitudes, which is planning similar locations as its flagship store, relies on a Gilbarco- brand Applause TV system. The large color monitor at each pump continually plays a variety of ads that can be programed to coordinate specific products with appropriate dayparts. In addition to touting special promotions, the system can print coupons as easily as it prints a receipt for a fuel purchase. “We host it ourselves,” Brown said, referring to the display system. “We advertise our wine specials and our two gallons of milk for $3.98. While customers are out there filling up, they see a PowerPoint presentation; and we can also play video.”
Although Latitudes likes to advertise store specials at the pumps, the c-store also likes to provide an island of calm in a daily sea of clatter.
“The system has audio, but we try not to use the audio too much,” Brown added. “When we were researching this, we found that if you go to a lot of places that have the audio, the mute button is always beat to tar. People just want gas. They don’t want someone yelling at them. And in order for people to hear it during the day, you have to turn the volume way up. We try not to use it.”
An additional service helps keep some customers at the store long enough to do some heavy shopping. Latitudes’ forecourt includes two state- of-the-art charging stations for electric vehicles.
EXPERIMENTING IN THE MIDWEST
Kwik Trip, the 475-store convenience chain with headquarters in La Crosse, Wis., is experimenting with TV monitors at some of the company’s newest locations. However, the chain still trusts that reliable classic—the pump topper— to get the message across.
“Our [pump topper] campaigns vary,” said John McHugh, manager of corporate communications for Kwik Trip. “We concentrate on our vertically-integrated items that we make ourselves, and we tend to highlight either our high-end coffee, hot foods program or commodities, such as eggs, milk, bread and bananas. The pump toppers usually mirror our larger billboard ads, so there is consistency in the messaging.”
When it comes to driving fuel customers into the store, Kwik Trip believes forecourt cleanliness is every bit as important as strategic communications.
“We concentrate on the cleanliness of our pumps since that can determine whether or not someone will buy food,” McHugh said. “Pump conditions are a guest’s first impression. For that reason, we make sure pump toppers are current and in good condition.”
At Maverik, the 270-plus convenience chain headquartered in North Salt Lake, Utah, an in-house radio station plays at the gas pumps, informing drivers about the various specials awaiting them inside the store.
“It’s like a radio network that we manage and run,” said Ernie Harker, executive director of Maverik’s Create Department. The stores also rely on pump toppers and use static advertising that changes at the first of each month. “We’ve investigated the pump video screens,” Harker said. “The companies that put it in say, ‘We’ll put it in for free or at a discount rate if we can sell ads to other advertisers who want the traffic that convenience stores offer.’ A lot of businesses would like to be able to market to that level of traffic. Those video systems are expensive, and that’s why it’s usually offset by advertising.” Maverik has always declined those offers because the company prefers to manage its own customer communications and product advertising. “We believe if it’s valuable, it’s valuable to us,” Harker said.
TRIED AND TRUE
Despite the advances in technology, many convenience retailers continue to rely almost exclusively on forecourt signage and pump toppers, plus a few window clings for good measure, to let consumers know what’s going on at the store.
QuikTrip, the Tulsa, Okla.-based convenience chain, utilizes the forecourt to promote its charitable activities, such as Folds of Honor, the non-profit organization that provides scholarships to family members of American military killed or disabled on duty. Signage also touts the QT Kitchen, the company’s fresh made-to- order program. Currently, the pump topper is publicizing the chain’s robust roller grill offerings.
“It varies all the time,” said Mike Thornbrugh, manager of public affairs for QuikTrip. “We push everything.”
Meanwhile, Kum and Go, the Des Moines, Iowa-based convenience retailer, uses forecourt signage to promote fresh foods that are available in approximately 150 of the chain’s 430- plus locations.
“With outdoor signage, we mostly focus on our fresh food offerings, reminding customers that we have pizza, deli and breakfast sandwiches, wraps, burgers and more,” said Kristie Bell, communications director for Kum and Go. “We also display our promotions, which change every 2-4 months depending on the offer and the season. When people stop in for fuel, we want them to understand that we’ve got a kitchen inside that is making fresh food.”
Similar signage is placed on bollards near the pumps to highlight those tasty products behind the glass door.
“Anecdotally, we’ve had customers confirm that forecourt signage has alerted them to an offer they weren’t aware of before,” Bell said. “So we believe that the larger outside signs help reinforce our fresh food offerings to those driving by or waiting at stoplights.”
No matter which tools you use, how you drive customers into the store remains fairly basic, according to Thornbrugh.
“The location is the key,” he said. “You have to have an attractive, well-lit, accessible property. Right now, in our Generation Three store, it’s a completely different look than we’ve had in the past. Anytime you have something new or a new look, it does pique the individual’s curiosity. We also have all kinds of signage at the pump, and that does drive traffic inside.”