As we approach the start of 2023, convenience store chains are turning to technology to increase speed, efficiency and accuracy for customers.
Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s is a great example.
What does a brand famous for its pizza do when pandemic-related issues are keeping people from their ritual of pizza and a fill-up? It pivots. And it enlists technology to do it.
“When the pandemic hit, to make it convenient for our guests, we added grocery items (for delivery),” said Art Sebastian, vice president of digital experiences at Casey’s, whose pizza popularity makes it the U.S.’ fifth-largest pizza chain. “We now have 700 grocery items available for order.”
That’s a move Daniel Burrus, CEO of Burrus Research Associates, which monitors global advancements in technology, said other stores should emulate — and expand on.
“Convenience stores have limited space,” he said. “There’s not a lot in those stores, but there are things that people might want. You could have a large, flat-panel touchscreen and people can order the things that they want, and they will be delivered to them. It’s an instant purchase that the convenience store is making money on just like anything else.”
But that’s the future.
In the near-term, Casey’s product expansion brought a new issue — fulfillment.
“We needed to put a better process in place for our stores to be able to pick those orders, stage them and hand them off to a delivery driver or a customer,” Sebastian said.
So Casey’s launched a grocery order fulfillment app running on Zebra handheld devices. Its pilot was so successful it’s now rolling it out to its more than 2,400 stores in 16 states.
“The technology tells you which guests ordered what and it puts them in order of sequence, so everything’s organized,” Sebastian said. “You check off when you pick the grocery item to make sure that you got the right item. It’s improved order accuracy, order timing and customer satisfaction scores.”
It’s been so successful Casey’s added a power inventory app that is helping stores manage inventory and order groceries and is piloting a production planner for the kitchen.
In addition to its fulfillment apps, Casey’s is piloting an artificial intelligence (AI) phone ordering system for its pizza orders that will eliminate inconsistencies and phone wait times, making the ordering process easier for customers and work easier for employees.
“We’re taking natural language processing and training the AI to interact with our guests and take orders,” Sebastian said. “Those orders will then be sent via application programming interface (API) into our order management system in the kitchen.”
Technology for All
Customers expect technology, but increasingly, so do employees. From scanners to self-checkout to grocery fulfillment, companies have been boosting the technology they provide to their employees, which makes work easier and provides a more seamless experience for customers.
“Giving your store team members more tools to operate the store and really to manage their own careers is going to be a space that we’re going to continue to lean into,” Sebastian said.
Whether it’s for workers or customers, technology has gone from nice-to-have to essential, from loyalty to speed.
“We had exponential growth of all areas of technology going on way before the pandemic, but when the pandemic struck, it went beyond exponential because the mindsets of the customers and of our employees have all changed,” Burrus said.
From mobile apps to self-checkout to AI and inventory management, personalization is now essential. But customers also want speed, which is why companies are looking to capitalize on technology that can help customers order faster, pay faster and make their visits more efficient.
“Personalized experiences give users what they need and want, and those services translate positively to the bottom line,” said Ginny Holmes, senior manager of digital products at Pilot. “Technology integration is and will continue to be a major part of our company’s future.”
Last year, Pilot looked to upgrade its myRewards Plus app. It wanted something that was both engaging and had customization and personalization based on driver type, giving it the ability to offer features and rewards relevant to every type of driver that uses its stores.
“The app has evolved from a digital store index and map finder to a tool that helps users truly engage with our brand, loyalty program and physical stores,” Holmes said. “A professional truck driver profile is different than an auto driver’s experience in the app. Once ‘inside’ the app, guests are delivered tailored features and rewards that matter for their experience and needs.”
The next steps are mobile payments and self-checkout.
Burrus’ research concurs that both mobile payments and self-checkout are the next phase in digital evolution for retailers.
“In our research of 10,000 consumers and retailers, 50% use self-checkouts and 38% use cashless payments,” Burrus said.
Pilot embeds mobile payments inside its myRewards Plus app, offering convenience and personalization to its customers.
“These programs allow users to load digital payment options into the mobile app that also integrates loyalty rewards. This creates fewer swipes and steps for guest transactions while maintaining access to exclusive loyalty benefits,” Holmes said.
As customers and workers become more tech savvy, they will want more technology that is fast and customizable. In the near-term, there’s an easy place to start.
“In the next three years, retailers will continue to think about how to get their guests in and out faster,” Sebastian said. “The whole idea of self-checkout, mobile checkout, scan-and-go technology, all that stuff’s real. We’ve decided to lean into it because our guests have told us it’s important to them.”