Understanding trends in the c-store industry is essential for retailers looking to grow their footprint and leave a lasting mark on the communities they serve.
In today’s day and age, many of these trends center around technology, as operators look to capitalize on an increasingly tech-focused society and consumer base.
Richard Crone, CEO of Crone Consulting LLC, gave some advice on what he sees as the top five tech trends in the industry today.
1. Frictionless Checkout
Frictionless checkout is something the industry has seen more and more of over the past few years, and it is a trend that quite simply is not going anywhere.
Crone noted that streamlining the payment process to enhance customer experience is key, while increasing two key points of interest — one more item and one more visit.
Oftentimes, the easiest way for retailers to implement frictionless checkout is by giving customers a chance to “check in,” via a mobile app.
“You don’t have to reconfigure your store or add cameras in order to start building a customer relationship model or a business model centered on developing a customer data platform, where every customer is known and contactable,” said Crone. “That’s the opportunity. The thing is that convenience stores, no matter how small or how large, have to have a check-in strategy. They have roughly three options: either make it themselves, or they buy it from someone else or they partner. The easiest is to partner.”
Crone noted that retailers often have access to a partnership through providers like Shell, bp, ExxonMobil and more. Once the partnership is established, the next step is to negotiate data rights for the value of the information that they are achieving from accepting the app.
2. Autonomous Check-In
Like frictionless checkout options, autonomous check-in is essential for c-store retailers looking to understand their customers’ desires.
Crone stated that there are two business models for retail: one where you know who your customer is and you have a record and a system for managing communications with them, known as a customer relationship management model (CRM), and one where you do not.
Crone indicated that having a CRM model can give retailers the upper hand when it comes to earning the business of c-store customers.
“You have to know who the customer (is), you have to have the data,” said Crone. “Check-in is about data. The most valuable check-in is where you have authenticated the customer, and they have opted into the communications between you and the store.”
Therefore, retailers are essentially in the identity and data business.
“That’s kind of the key here is that if you get a customer to check in, and you’ve identified them, then there’s this big revenue opportunity,” Crone stated.
3. Identity Partnership with Fintechs
Next, the question is what to do once you get customers to check in.
Some options include the aforementioned petroleum app, digital wallets or the car itself.
Some retailers have deployed offerings where they use the car itself, its license plate, make and model and facial recognition to identify and verify customers.
While this seems to possibly be toeing the ethical line when it comes to privacy, Crone noted that this technology would only be used for those customers that opt into the service.
Customers can be identified in the same way that their data usage is, like the way cookies on a website are opted into and used by the companies that deploy them.
“That’s an anonymous identifier. That cookie doesn’t have any personally identifiable information. They have anonymized that. In fact, they’ve put it in a cohort or a group,” said Crone. “Convenience stores can do the same for that check-in information. They don’t have to have any personally identifiable information, license, name, number, make or model, facial recognition, any of that.”
Therefore, companies can use this freely public information to their advantage by identifying customers.
4. Digital Wallets
Crone noted that partnerships can be essential for retailers looking to capitalize on technology, such as digital wallets.
“If you’re willing to partner with Amazon, and you can successfully negotiate a revenue sharing deal for the use of the data, Amazon will actually pay for retrofitting a convenience store with a ton of checkout,” noted Crone.
In this case, Amazon would pay to put in cameras, implement the system and deploy it, in exchange for the revenue sharing agreement for the use of the data.
Really what it all comes down to is data, which can almost be seen as a currency of its own, capable of increasing revenue and driving sales when used properly and safely.
5. Electric Vehicle (EV) Charging
Diverting a bit from the retail-focused trends is another increasingly prevalent form of technology, which is EV charging.
Crone noted that you need all four of the previous trends to fully leverage EV charging at c-stores.
Since EV charging can be a long process — at least 30 minutes, even for a fast charge — retailers need to focus on making the most of the time that the customer as at their location.
Almost half of customers that are purchasing fuel go into the store, and nearly half of them buy a beverage, which typically takes three and a half minutes, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).
“What that relates to is they have to have, again, I go back to this make, buyer, partner,” said Crone. “Either you have an enhanced merchandising model inside the store that looks like a QSR, or a near fully-featured mini footprint of Amazon Go for a small footprint grocery, or you look to other complementary types of businesses that you can leverage your CRM with, like a QSR, healthcare, hair salons, barbershops, entertainment, dry cleaning, anything close by, where they can do something else while the car’s being charged.”
What this comes down to again is partnerships, which can be especially useful for smaller retailers that do not have the same ability to launch proprietary services like larger, more established retailers can.
Crone urged that again, retailers must have a check-in strategy to fully optimize this business model.
If retailers can capitalize on these five tech trends, they will have a much easier time understanding their customers and providing them with what they are looking for in a convenience store.