Today’s handheld digital technology has heightened consumer expectations of ease and service, especially in the retail and foodservice space. Customers expect easy ordering, shorter wait times and quick transactions. More often, that means using prepaid services.
Possibly the most important aspect of any prepaid program — and possibly the most overlooked — is that it must be designed around the customer.
The San Diego-based Soapy Joe’s convenience store and car wash chain has been in the prepaid business for over a decade, according to Anne Mauler, Soapy Joe’s vice president of marketing. The chain operates three convenience stores with car washes and 12 standalone car washes. It offers prepaid services around its car washes via its digital car wash subscription program, where customers can buy five washes at a time, or they can purchase a yearly or monthly prepaid car wash membership.
Mauler explained that Soapy Joe’s wants to make sure that every customer touchpoint at one of its locations is quick and easy. “So that even comes down to, ‘How do you make that decision? What package are you coming into? Is the sign-up quick and easy?’” Mauler explained. “Because the reality is they’re doing the sign-up components right there at the express pay terminal where people who are buying single washes are as well.”
And Soapy Joe’s isn’t alone. More convenience stores today are incorporating prepaid capabilities into their loyalty program, mobile app or car wash programs.
Mauler advised other retailers to keep prepaid options simple. That means assessing current offerings and making changes where needed.
Most notably this past year, Soapy Joe’s started off originally offering a four-wash prepaid option, and the company simplified that down to a package of three. “A strategy with a high, medium, low approach that our customers really appreciate,” she noted.
That focus on the customer is essential, according to Partick Raycroft, associate director with Chicago-based information technology consultants W. Capra.
“First and foremost, anybody who’s considering the value and benefits of a reloadable gift card program to their business needs to say, ‘Well, what is in it for the consumer?’” said Raycroft. Once a retailer establishes the value for the consumer who is a regular visitor, it is crucial that the digital experience is easy. If not, customers will opt to simply not use it.
Raycroft advised retailers to include core features that customers who use prepaid services have come to expect. Whether it’s a gift card account or simply a pay-functional mobile app, it all needs to be fully integrated at the user’s fingertips.
“If I log into your mobile app,” Raycroft explained, “the first part of my core account profile needs to be my reloadable gift card account, the balance that’s associated with it and an identifier — a barcode, number, etc., that I can use to pay with that value that I’ve loaded into the account.”
And be sure to keep the reloadable function simple. The companies who do this best, like Starbucks, even offer an auto-reload. When a customer’s balance falls below a certain dollar amount, the app will automatically reload a specified amount to the account.
There are caveats, Raycroft said. Beware any system that takes your customers to a third-party site to transfer money, especially if it requires users to re-enter their username and password. “It’s a really poor customer experience,” noted Raycroft.
Soapy Joe’s Mauler said that the chain is considering adding purchase ability of convenience store goods, foodservice and fuel, and even a loyalty program.
“Our program doesn’t include anything like loyalty points,” she said. “We’d love to get there, and we would love to tie into our gas as well and be able to pull through a gas discount. There’s loyalty to the brand, but not in a concrete programmatic sense.”
The obstacle with including fuel, though, is that those suppliers already have their own loyalty programs and apps. Plus, Soapy Joe’s offers different fuel brands across its locations. It can be difficult integrating prepaid services to be compatible across different point-of-purchase hardware and software.
“We’ve got Chevron, ARCO, Mobil, and they’re all on different point-of-sale (POS) systems, which is discrete from our car wash POS system,” Mauler explained. “So as soon as we can figure out that technology layer, it’s something that we want to do.”
Whether its offering the ability to order and prepay via a mobile app before collecting items at the store, or adding prepaid coffee or other subscriptions, savvy retailers are looking for ways to ensure they’re part of their customers’ daily routine.
Looking to the future, c-stores would be wise to consider adding prepaid capabilities around everyday purchases, including food and beverage purchases, if they haven’t already.
To find success with prepaid services, it’s imperative that a retail operator knows what its regular customers want. Soapy Joe’s does an annual survey of its Wash Club members to stay on top of their preferences.
Raycroft advised c-stores to also stay on top of what other retailers are doing, especially those that have shown the greatest success with prepaid offerings. Right now, Starbucks is the gold standard, where customers can order and pay ahead for beverages and food. By incorporating prepaid capabilities, convenience stores can capture some of that market that stops at Starbucks several days a week because it’s on their daily route.
That’s a great opportunity for convenience stores with strong coffee programs or quality breakfast programs, Raycroft said. “They should be trying to compete with those everyday spend vendors or everyday spend merchants to get attention from a customer perspective.” CSD