The adage says if you’re not first, you’re last. But when it comes to innovation, that’s not always the case.
According to Gray Taylor, the executive director of Conexxus, a nonprofit, member-driven organization focused on the development of technology in the c-store and fuel industries, you don’t even have to be third or fifth or 10th. But you do have to be willing to be innovative.
“The old sailor thing is: I can’t change the wind, but I can adjust my sails,” Taylor said.
Conexxus introduced its Roadmap in 2017. Taylor was researching some core technologies that were coming online, and he wondered about their applications for retail.
“The whole idea was to not sit there and say, ‘Look at this tech, it’s really, really cool.’ The idea was: How do you put it in the context of applicability to what we do?”
The Roadmap has grown since its inception. The first version fit on just a page. At the 2023 NACS Show, Conexxus’ presentation—the most recent version of the Roadmap—had six highly detailed slides full of arrows tracing connections, and the presentation barely fit inside its allotted two-hour-and-fifteen-minute timeslot.
The Roadmap highlights existing and coming technologies to help organizations make informed decisions and stay on the front lines of innovation. It’s available for download on the Conexxus website and is updated yearly.
According to Linda Toth, Conexxus’ managing director, the Roadmap is a collaborative effort that focuses on the “wisdom of the crowd” using subject matter experts within the Conexxus community to ensure the Roadmap’s accuracy and relevance.
If you’re 10 years ahead of time, that can be just as bad as being wrong.”
“It’s an outlook of all the technology that’s coming into play in the world that could affect retail and petroleum,” Toth said. “It looks at what’s here now and what’s coming. It’s split up into various timeframes so that people can understand, ‘This is around the corner, and this is five to 10 years out.’”
Taylor said he sees the Roadmap as a “great discussion.”
“I don’t think anybody takes it as the word of God—I hope that’s not what happens,” he said. “As I like to say, we get to stay up all night thinking about this stuff so [other people] don’t have to. … The other thing [the Roadmap] is really trying to do is to get people to start thinking.”
Doug New, who is the chair of the Conexxus Innovation Research Committee (IRC) and the chief information officer at Nouria Energy Corporation, said the drivers of the Roadmap are conversations about what will benefit member organizations and store operations.
The current version of the Roadmap focuses on five different areas—supporting technologies; consumer journey; store operations/marketing; mobility and energy; and food service—with a timeline along the bottom for when those technologies will come into play (now, one to three years, three to five years, five-plus years).
In creating the Roadmap, New said that the IRC “really tries to put ourselves in the merchants’ space and understand what is important to them or what is going to be important to them.”
He added, “[The Roadmap is] a way to try to give merchants—specifically members of NACS and Connexus—an understanding of what’s out there and what they might be looking to pay attention to right now.” The Roadmap itself is straightforward, “but it’s the conversations around it and what these things mean and how they interrelate that really vary.”
Being Ready for Tech
Taylor said, “We keep telling people, ‘Think of what your business is going to be like, what the customer, especially, is going to be like 10 years from now. And what tools do you need to have in place to serve that customer—and what is the road map that’s going to get you there, because it’s not going to happen overnight.’”
Successful c-stores will look at what their customers want that their store doesn’t offer, Taylor said. So companies need to think: How do I experiment and put that together? The Roadmap can help by pointing out areas for potential development and the changing technology in those areas.
Taylor cautioned, “If you’re 10 years ahead of time, that can be just as bad as being wrong.”
Taylor suggests being a fast follower, while noting that being a fast follower is not possible “if your feet are stuck in cement. And that’s why we really focus on a 10-year architectural Roadmap,” because if you’re thinking ahead about technologies, you can react nimbly when that technology becomes relevant for your organization.
On the Horizon
Taylor is most proud of the Roadmap’s predictions on AI—even if the speed of adoption was even more rapid than he and the rest of the IRC predicted. People are still learning how to best adopt it and which version of it to use (generative versus predictive versus conversational).
At the 2023 NACS Show, Taylor joked, “Everyone wakes up if you say ‘AI.’” Conexxus sees the technology being used to increase operational efficiency (inventory management, supply chain optimization, predictive maintenance); to provide personalized and seamless customer experiences (through virtual assistants and customization); to enhance data analytics and predictive analytics; to expand visual recognition (shelf monitoring, cashierless checkout, security surveillance) and to prevent fraud.
Beyond AI, the panel at the 2023 NACS Show—made up of Taylor, New, Don Emery and Ed Collupy—pointed out a number of other key technology developments that include:
• Sunrise 2027
• Virtual checkout and unattended stores
• Continued implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT) at the store level
• Autonomous vehicles, autonomous delivery and fleet sharing
• The omnichannel experience
• Personalized pricing
• Cloud-based POS systems
• A mobile super app
A lot of things that were on the Roadmap in 2017 or 2019 or 2021 are still relevant in 2023. The big ideas don’t change too much over the years—5G … and then 6G; autonomous vehicles; implementation of the IoT; batteries and solar power; cloud-based POS; dynamic pricing; in-store robot technology; and AI—but new technologies develop that allow retailers to implement them in better, more personalized ways.
The four on the NACS Show panel said that there should be a push, too, to make employees part of the customer experience (maybe through a marketing message) and that everyone should be building standards for connectivity. Along the same lines, the Roadmap highlighted the omnichannel experience, personalized pricing and cloud-based POS systems as areas for further development down the road.
New said he sees the omnichannel experience and frictionless payments as big areas for innovation and thinks c-stores can get better at partnering with CPGs because, unlike big box stores, c-stores “have more interaction with customers on a daily basis.” Meanwhile, Taylor said he sees massive room for improvement in the supply chain, an area that’s “vastly ignored because it’s not sexy.”
The Conexxus Roadmap aims to give an overview of what technologies may be coming online for c-stores over the next five-plus years. The Roadmap is available at conexxus.org/resources.
“How do we optimize our supply chains, bullwhip our supply chains?” Taylor said. “We’re ordering too much at one point, and then people are frustrated that they don’t have enough. How do we help our vendors know what our demand flow is going to be?”
Another topic touched upon in the Roadmap is the mobile super app, which can theoretically bring employees and consumers together by combining multiple services on one platform. For example, the app could be a central hub for digital coupons, payments, loyalty programs, etc.
Taylor thinks there’s still a way to go on the super app. Taylor thinks that, instead, there could be a virtual super app that uses the best of breed for each component and links seamlessly to all the other ones.
Regardless, there’s always room for innovation—no matter how crazy or out there it might seem.
“We can put the most outrageous thing up there [on the Roadmap] and somebody will come in and tell me, ‘Yeah, we’ve played with that,’” Taylor said. “There are pockets of brilliance out there.”
According to New, if you’re just looking at the technology for where you should go next, “That’s the wrong direction.” Instead, you should look at the business problems you’re facing and ask yourself: “What are the options for resolving, solving or addressing those business issues? And then there’s going to be technology around that.”
A Slower Pace of Adoption?
Collupy, a consultant who spent about 20 years in the retail industry before founding his firm, said the Covid pandemic was an interesting time for innovation because it changed the speed at which technology was implemented.
“You had people saying, ‘Let’s take a risk, even if it may not be 100% tested and ready and pristine with all the bells and whistles we ultimately want,’” he said.
But now, a few years out from the heart of the pandemic, c-stores have slowed adoption.
“We’re back to a mode where people are saying, ‘Oh, we better test things. We better spend more time making sure it’s right,’” Collupy said. “We’ve got to get back into that level of risk-taking a little bit and take an approach that says: We survived, we got through it, we can continue to do that.”
We’re back to a mode where people are saying, ‘Oh, we better test things.’”
Emery, the vice chair of the IRC and a senior manager for payment products at CHS, said the pace of innovation during the pandemic showed that organizations still “have to be able to adapt to the things that are coming or that may be coming.”
Emery said he hopes companies see the value of moving quickly and pushing the envelope.
“You have to at least be willing to adapt,” he said, “because if you’re not willing to adapt, then those are things you’re going to live without eventually.”
The Roadmap is updated at the Conexxus Annual Strategy Conference meeting. This year, the event is August 19-22 in Idaho. Limited attendance is available, with priority given to Conexxus gold members.
Taylor added: “It’s like a long-distance runner. … [With Covid,] we had to run a really fast sprint in the middle of the race, and then, all of a sudden, we’re like, oh, OK, well, we’re now No. 1. I’m just going to hold back. And the urgency is gone. … I wouldn’t call it caution, I would call it complacency.”
“We’re not just selling cokes and smokes anymore,” Emery said. “We’re not just selling petroleum anymore. We’re not just providing pizza and hot dogs on rollers. … We need to start progressing more toward thinking: Well, what could be next? Let’s think outside the box.”