Driving fuel customers from the gas pump into the convenience store remains one of the greatest marketing challenges for c-store retailers.
That challenge is growing even more complex today given evolving technology such as video and mobile payments at the pump, changes to customer habits brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and now skyrocketing gas prices.
Before retailers focus on forecourt marketing from a technology perspective, it’s important to ensure best practices are already in place.
Creating An Impression
“The forecourt itself is a large part of a c-store’s marketing efforts,” explained Steven Montgomery, president of b2b Solutions LLC in Lake Forest, Ill. “It is here the customer begins forming a perception of what they will find inside.”
If the forecourt is in disarray with litter on the ground or dirty dispensers, that sends a message to customers about the type of experience they’ll find inside the store.
“Other forms of marketing will have a difficult time persuading customers to go inside if the forecourt’s message is ‘this is not a place you want to shop,’” Montgomery said.
With the higher price of gas causing increasingly frugal consumers to fill up less frequently, convenience store retailers have an opportunity to position themselves as a one-stop shop.
“Gas prices can be both a negative and a positive factor. It is a negative because it can impact trips and customers’ discretionary income, but a positive because with the right product mix, marketing and pricing strategy it can drive basket size as customers seek to consolidate trips,” Montgomery added.
Call To Action
The first step in forecourt marketing is finding a call to action that drives gas customers to go inside the store, noted Anna Felz, marketing brand manager for Spicewood, Texas-based Texas Born (TXB), which operates 47 locations throughout Texas and Oklahoma.
“How to do that successfully is the mystical question that everyone is trying to figure out right now,” Felz said.
Videos at the pump can help put this call to enter the store in front of customers, but results depend on the offer. Highlighting foodservice items can be one tactic.
“If you have some delicious-looking food, and it’s easy and convenient, it will work,” Felz added.
The ideal is for the consumer to eventually be able to push a button and order a sandwich or other food item and have it ready and waiting when they enter the store, she said.
“That will get people to come inside, so I think it’s all about your offer,” Felz said. “If you have a boring video, or it’s unprofessional or it’s just ads that is not going to do anything. Again, it’s all about what you are offering on the inside and needing to present that on the outside.”
The technology to allow customers to order food via the pump is not quite there yet.
“We see people trying to get into that right now. It’s more challenging; it’s a goal, and there are people making strides in it,” Felz said. “We are working on it as well, where you can at least order it from our app at the pump. But then people have to be using their phones at the pumps.”
The challenge in implementing order-at-the-pump technology comes down to the specifics of integrating pumps with the kitchen and the point-of-sale system.
“There is just a lot of IT integration among different players who have to play together to make that work,” she said.
Return to Normal
The COVID-19 pandemic threw a monkey wrench into c-store marketing schemes as customers initially sheltered in place in many locations.
“Initially, when the pandemic first started, it was just that drive time was way down, trips were way down, and a lot of people didn’t want to come inside,” Felz recalled. “There were a lot of stores that shut down their inside areas due to safety protocols, and they didn’t have the labor, and so people were only getting fuel.”
Thus, the pandemic took a sizeable chunk out of TXB’s food sales.
“Breakfast and lunch sales were down because people were not taking the same trips to work, the office or school,” Felz said. “But later on, and even during the pandemic, people would come inside and were buying more because they were stocking up. They wanted to get plenty of water, plenty of toilet paper, milk, pizza, ice cream and stuff to take home. Beer and wine sales went up, too. So even though they weren’t taking as many trips, they were buying more when they did come inside.”
Today, customer shopping behavior is returning to pre-pandemic levels, making it an ideal time to double down on forecourt marketing.
“Now I think we are starting to come back to what I will call a normal world, a normal sales cycle,” Felz said.
The arrival of summer is also influencing forecourt marketing efforts.
“A lot of times for c-stores the sales can be weather-related. For us, sales have been good because the weather has been hot, and that brings people in to buy water and ice,” she said.
Overall, Felz concluded, TXB’s management feels confident that sales are going to be higher — and forecourt marketing more effective — this year than last.
“There are more people out this year than at this time last year,” she said.