Driving fuel customers from the gas pump into the convenience store remains a core challenge for c-store retailers, but evolving technology is helping retailers to better market to potential shoppers at the fuel island, in some cases even bringing the items to them.
“As fuel pump technology improves and costs for touchscreens and interactive technology come down, we are seeing more chains moving to interactive audio and video at the pump, and some are even beginning to use that functionality for ordering at the pump,” said Ryan Lindsley, vice president of marketing and digital technology, Kum & Go, which operates more than 400 stores across 11 states. The chain is also set to expand into Utah and Michigan by the end of the year.
Kum & Go is investing in new pump and screen technology. It has also introduced ordering-to-pump capability within its mobile app as well as embedded in its mobile fuel pay feature, which it launched in April of this year.
“We have mobile ordering for most of our stores. (Items) can be purchased for curbside and BOPIS (buy online, pickup in-store),” Lindsley said.
The mobile fuel pay feature allows customers to purchase fuel and activate their pump from their phone without leaving their car.
“We upsell customers with an interrupt during mobile fuel pay,” Lindsley said. “When a customer activates the pump from their phone, we present them with a screen with a selection of products, which can be purchased and brought out to their vehicle. We also do audio advertising of our key offerings inside,” he added.
Key Oil Co. relies on its fuel dispensers to market to customers in the forecourt at its two company-owned and -operated locations, which include a Keystop Express convenience store and a Keystop Travel Center in Franklin, Ky. It also distributes fuel to nearly 200 branded sites and supplies wholesale (unbranded) fuel to a large network of c-stores throughout Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee.
The Keystop Express site features BP-branded gas. BP does not allow for BP-branded sites to feature third-party signage on their pumps, making digital screens crucial for interacting with customers and driving them into the store.
“Pumptoppers aren’t the most reliable form of marketing in the forecourt. These pumptoppers break, blow off of the dispenser, and in some areas end up empty from high winds,” said Keelye Gaither, brand and marketing coordinator for Key Oil Co. “This move towards digitalization for c-stores not only makes the customer experience more interactive but also brings a sense of security for the retailer who is trying to target certain loyalty advertisements.”
The Keystop locations grab customer attention through the digital interface at the gas pump. The sites employ Dover Fueling Solutions’ Anthem UX User Experience Platform, which features a 27-inch touchscreen. Its Keystop Express added the Anthem dispensers three to four years ago, and the Keystop Travel Center, which features 20 fueling positions, rolled them out this summer.
“The 27-inch touchscreen is a great feature,” Gaither said. “Going out there and teaching our customers how to use this touchscreen has been one of the most critical parts of this adaption (to) technology because it can be intimidating if you don’t know how to use it. But it is so user-friendly. I can’t say enough good things about it from that standpoint.”
Infomercials as well as commercials play while customers are fueling. The pump interface allows customers to check the traffic and the weather. The stores began by running advertisements at the pump highlighting products inside the store as well as menu options and expanded into more store-specific ads.
“Mostly what we wanted to do was connect with our customers and show them, ‘You’re getting a really good price on this fuel right now, but we’ve also got some really good stuff inside this store too,’” Gaither said.
Keystop has also reached out to some of its vendors and had them supply ads to play on the dispensers.
“Nothing grabs someone’s attention like an actual video playing and calling out to them,” Gaither said.
She also adds elements to the pump interface, including happy music, calls to action and audible clips to capture customer attention.
The stores saw a big uptick in breakfast sales after advertising its breakfast offering in a video at the pump that features pricing and available menu items.
“Even in the months of January when sales are supposed to be lower, we still saw a growth in our sales, so it’s been awesome,” Gaither said.
The Anthem UX User Experience Platform is set to roll out the ability to place an order for food directly on the pump’s touchscreen. “We are definitely considering adding that,” Gaither said.
Keystop is also looking into the possibility of selling ad space to local businesses, allowing them to feature ad videos at the pump. Updating ads is convenient too. Gaither can switch out advertisements quickly on her mobile phone.
“I’m able to do it wherever I’m at,” she said.
Currently, both Keystop locations also each feature a spirit pump, where a percentage of sales from that dispenser benefits a local cause. The Keystop Express’ spirit pump is fitted with a design featuring a local school’s mascot and benefits the school, while the Keystop Travel Center spirit pump benefits the Boys and Girls Club.
At participating high schools, the students are designing advertisements for the dispenser about school events in the local community, while the middle and elementary schools are sending artwork that will be displayed on the pump screen via video or static images.
Trends to Watch
There are so many different ways to get convenience items today,” Kum & Go’s Lindsley said. “You can order online, through subscriptions, have convenience delivered to you; and many other formats are also coming into this space, so differentiation is the name of the game. Customers want to achieve multiple objectives in a single trip, so the providers that can do that on top of fuel consistently are going to get the customer into the store and also get them back.”
When it comes to trends in forecourt marketing, Lindsley is watching technological advancements.
“A more nascent technology that is exciting to watch is the vehicle-tracking technologies and location-based payment capabilities that are tied to a vehicle identification,” he said. “This sort of fully integrated experience creates a new opportunity for in-the-moment offers, ordering and loyalty capabilities.”
The holy grail in forecourt marketing is to create a check-in strategy to drive door swings and a platform for promotions, according to Richard Crone, CEO of Crone Consulting. Like Lindsley he pointed to vehicle-tracking technology.
“The real forward-thinking (solution) is allowing the customer to register their license plate number and their vehicle, so c-stores can recognize the car as it enters the property. It’s the same technology that Amazon Go uses to identify customers when they enter the store,” he said.
Such technology is already being tested by some gas stations in China.
“Most of it is used to avoid shrinkage, where somebody fuels and leaves … but the big upside is really connecting with that customer and making them known and contactable once they enter,” Crone suggested.
Another future tech solution would be using biometrics to identify customers in the forecourt. Amazon Fresh technology known as Amazon One allows customers to register their tender type and connect it with the palm of their hand.
“You simply put your palm over the palm reader at Amazon Fresh and it opens the gate,” he said. “At that point, it knows who you are, and you’ve already registered your card.”
But as c-stores wait for future technology options to arrive in the forecourt, they can still market to customers as they arrive on the lot by sending an alert via a mobile app.
That app would ideally be the c-store’s own proprietary app, but it could also be done through a partnership with their petroleum brand’s mobile app or through a standalone mobile payment app like Google Wallet, Crone noted. Stores with a loyalty partnership in tandem with a grocery store might be able to reach customers via that app as well. A text message could also work, Crone noted, but an in-app message works best.
“The key there is you’ve got to get the customer to opt-in … first to be identified and then to be communicated with,” Crone said. “And that’s your promotional platform for motivating them to come into the store.”
Geotargeting is another forecourt marketing trend that can help attract customers by sending a promotion when they are within a specific range of the store, such as a mile away. But the best time to reach customers and attract them into the store is when they arrive on the property.
“The typical pump is about 180-540 inches from the door swing, and so you need a way to talk to them to get them into the store,” Crone said. Such promotional messages don’t need to cost c-stores a thing.
Crone recommended partnering with consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies that sell products at your stores to help fund the promotions.
“They will pay for them … if they can prove that their alert in the app drove (the customer) into the store to buy something,” Crone said.
“The CPG company pays (the salesperson) a spiff for that. It’s known as a slotting fee or a pay-to-place promotion. … The c-stores, at least the bigger ones, actually make more money from the slotting and trade promotions than they do in EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization),” Crone said. “This could be very profitable to them if they have an enrolled base of customers that they can reach through a text, through an app or through someone else’s app.”
Order-ahead and delivery continue to grow as trends, and that brings new opportunities in forecourt marketing as well.
“We’ve moved, especially post-pandemic, to a delivery model,” Crone said. “If somebody can order ahead or order through the app and the delivery point is only 180-540 inches from the store, then apply the Grubhub model to the pump.”
In other words, deliver the order right to the fuel island.
Options abound in how to implement this. Crone recommended that c-stores should provide pump delivery at the very least for beverage orders or for orders over a certain dollar amount. Another option is to offer an autonomous refrigerated cabinet at the fuel island that features beverages and that fuel customers can access using their app.
Offering the ability to order right on the pump interface is another great way of converting the touch point into a promotional platform, Crone noted. He added the option might be cost prohibitive for some small operators, who might have an easier time reaching customers through a smartphone.
“Look at how many people are holding a cell phone and looking at it while they’re fueling. The numbers are astounding,” he said.
Offering an electronic receipt is another way to build an enrolled customer base. Today modern payment platforms from Toast to Square offer this option.
“To get an electronic receipt, you have to register your email address, your cell phone or both,” he said.
This requires the customer to “check in” and allows you to know who they are — and market to them — before they check out.
“All fueling requires is that you insert your card before you fuel,” Crone said. “And so the fueling station has an opportunity to … offer an e-receipt sent via text with a tiny URL link to open that up or through an email.”
This could help retailers build a database of known users one payment at a time, Crone said.
“What we’re talking about are pathways to purchase inside the store based on knowing the customer is now on the property, who they are and that they’ve pre-authenticated a payment credential,” Crone said. “That’s the key.”