Envisioning an Electric Future

Here’s why you should make tomorrow’s EV plans a focus for today.

Envisioning an Electric Future

August 2023   minute read

By: Sara Counihan

Close your eyes for a moment. Think about your convenience retailing business. Now think about it five, 10 years down the road. You are now catering to a quickly growing customer demographic—the EV driver.

Imagine drivers pulling into your parking lot to charge their vehicles and being greeted by a row of chargers ready to go. They open your store’s app on their phone to turn on a charger and pay for their charge. Once they begin charging, they see a notification pop up on their phone for a free specialty coffee.

They click on the promo, order their beverage and walk into the c-store to pick it up. They purchase a pastry to go with their coffee and sit down in a comfy chair. They open their laptop and squeeze in 20 minutes of work before they receive an app notification that their vehicle is charged. With an experience like this, EV drivers choose your location for a convenient charge, becoming loyal customers.

Now open your eyes. Is your current convenience store business on the path to the electrified future that you envision? Or do you need some guidance, a little inspiration or some tips on how to take your first step into the EV charging world? If so, keep reading.

A Sense of Urgency

According to BloombergNEF research, global passenger electric vehicle sales will increase from 10.5 million in 2022 to 22 million in 2025—a 109.5% increase. Additionally, EVs are projected to be 29.2% of new vehicles sold by 2025 in the U.S. and Europe (compared to 2.6% in 2019).

“There should be a degree of urgency for convenience retailers to get into the EV space,” said Michael Hughes, chief revenue officer, ChargePoint, which offers a leading network of EV charging stations in North America and Europe.

Hughes says there are three reasons for that sense of urgency. The first is that convenience retailers will soon have increased competition when it comes to how and where consumers fuel up. Eighty percent of fueling happens at convenience stores, according to NACS data. Experts predict that around 75% of EV charging will take place at home or at work; however, the remaining 25% of charging opportunity won’t be exclusive to convenience stores, said Hughes.

“Convenience retailers end up sharing a smaller piece of the fueling pie with competitors that they’ve never had to compete against,” he said.

Another reason for urgency is the plethora of funding options available from local, state and federal governments. These incentives won’t be around forever. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) allocates $7.5 billion for EV charging and other alternative fuel projects: $5 billion for the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) formula program and an anticipated $2.5 billion for corridor and community charging grants, covering up to 80% of EV charging project costs.

“Outside incentives do help mitigate risk and expediate payback,” said Hughes.

The third reason for urgency surrounding EVs, according to Hughes, is that there is first-mover advantage.

“Convenience stores are in the business of selling products and services that customers want and need as they’re on their way. Charging is no different,” said Hughes. “There’s an advantage to being a first mover to demonstrate to your customers that, ‘Hey, you can still come to my place tomorrow the same way that you come to my place today.’”

Joe Bona, president of Bona Design Lab, a convenience store design firm, also sees an advantage in getting into the EV charging game sooner rather than later.

“There’s no time other than now to get in and figure it out and see how it affects your business,” said Bona. “You can see what the learnings are and what changes you need to make in order to serve those customer needs.”

Forward Thinking

Here are some words of advice from retailers and experts on the future of electric vehicle charging and how convenience retailers play an integral role:

Kim Okafor, Trillium and Love’s: “This is our market to thrive in, so we need to move with the times. We want to be fuel providers, no matter what the fuel is. More than anything, we want to utilize the capabilities of our expertise. Let’s take our experiences and work together.”

Jacob Maass, Kum & Go: “Our customer base [is] still going to need somewhere to charge their vehicle when they’re running low. That gives us light, gives us hope that we can be that stop for them by adding the right amenities and by putting forth the efforts to make us a premier stop.”

Joe Bona, Bona Design Lab: “We think food is going to be critical for EV users because they’re going to have longer dwell times, and having a robust food offer is going to be really an essential ingredient for that mission.”

Michael Hughes, ChargePoint: “How do c-store retailers change the guest experience to accommodate for a longer dwell time? I think the answer can be daunting, but I think it’s also really exciting too, because it’s an opportunity to evolve and adapt, which is something the convenience industry does better than anybody in business.”

A Look Into the Future

Bona spends much of his time envisioning the convenience store of the future, and electric vehicles “absolutely” are part of tomorrow’s c-store. However, because EV drivers will have so many places they can charge, convenience retailers need to give customers more reasons than ever to visit a c-store.

“As long as we don’t lose sight that convenience is the fundamental reason why people use our sites, I think EV charging is just going to be another offer that attracts more people to our locations,” he said.

A robust foodservice program is a must-have if a convenience store wants to compete in the future of convenience retailing, said Bona, along with bigger, cleaner restrooms and other amenities that make c-stores a destination rather than a stop on the way.

“If I need a place to charge, I’m going to go past the pharmacy, the shopping mall, or any number of other places with chargers. I’m more likely to go to my local convenience store just because it remains the most convenient stop between Points A and B and where I can do other things,” said Bona. “I think that it’s important that c-store retailers embrace all aspects of their business in order to serve those needs.”

What Others Are Doing

Kum & Go recently rolled out a new foodservice program with the EV customer in mind. The Midwest-based convenience retailer now offers healthier food options and other made-to-order items that take a bit longer to make but are “perfect for this type of customer,” said Jacob Maass, senior fuel pricing manager, Kum & Go.

The retailer, which has approximately 400 locations, has been on its EV journey for about six years, dipping its toe in the water with some hosted charging stations. ChargePoint and Kum & Go installed EV charging at six locations in Colorado with funding from the state’s Charge Ahead program.

“That was really our first dive into the water,” said Maass. Since then, the retailer has added multiple charging stations, and now has 35 electrified sites.

“We’ve been utilizing those chargers to gain more customers beyond our traditional offering, which is fuel and our inside items, our food program,” said Maass. “We’re constantly looking for opportunities to continue to roll out EV charging infrastructure across our network.”

Love’s Travel Stops is on a similar path as Kum & Go. The retailer installed its first EV charger in 2016, and now has 20 locations with EV charging throughout the country.

“The great thing about our locations is that they’re located on corridors. … You’ll find us on the way to a major city,” said Kim Okafor, general manager of zero emission solutions for Trillium Energy Solutions, part of the Love’s Family of Companies. The locations “have clean restrooms and well-lit parking lots, which is exactly what the EV driver needs to reduce that range anxiety.”

Many Love’s locations offer dog parks and other great amenities, which also bodes well for the EV driver looking to kill time while they charge up.

“[EV charging] is an amenity, but it’s also an investment that we’re making, and we want to make sure that we get a return on that investment,” said Okafor. “And the way [to] get a return on investment is building a customer experience [where] the customer will want to come back to the charging station. Our goal is to get return customers.”

The Digital Journey

According to Hughes, the journey that a customer takes to an EV charging destination is a “heads down” approach—quite the opposite of the way gasoline customers find a fueling location, which he described as a “heads up” journey.

Sixty percent of gasoline customers choose a gas station based on price, according to NACS data, so they’re driving “heads up”—they’re looking for a price or a particular brand. With EV drivers, the charger search begins in the vehicle or on an app, whether it’s a charging network app or a retail chain app. ChargePoint integrates its network into a number of auto OEM infotainment systems. The system tells the driver when the vehicle needs to be charged and the most convenient location to do this.

“[The software] becomes part of the driver experience, where the driver is now relying on this technology to help them identify where to go,” said Hughes.

Convenience stores play the most effective role in this EV customer digital journey when a c-store brand owns and operates the charging station on its site, according to Hughes.

“When you do that, you can set the pricing policies, you can decide if there are going to be integrations with loyalty, you can communicate with the driver in any way you want,” he said. “For companies that are neck deep into the guest experience and controlling the guest ecosystem, I think this is really the only way that they can proceed because they’ve spent so much money developing that guest experience, and this is an extension of that.”

Allowing c-store retailers to own and operate their own charging system and monetize this investment is the focus of ChargePoint.

“ChargePoint has been helping its customers develop their EV strategies since before there was anything to strategize for—way out in front of the developing market,” said Hughes. “We are truly an end-to-end solution from hardware to software to support.”

Learn more at www.chargepoint.com.

Sara Counihan

Sara Counihan

Sara Counihan is contributing editor of NACS Magazine and NACS Daily. She can be reached at scounihan@ convenience.org.

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