A Friction-Free Future

Convenience retail experts look at ways to transform the customer and employee experience through technology.

A Friction-Free Future

June 2024   minute read

By: Shannon Carroll

Picture this: a convenience store where artificial intelligence tells employees when an item needs to be restocked, monitors customer audio for potential scams, trains employees, cleans the floors and takes customers’ phone calls.

This isn’t a vision of the distant future—it’s the reality for retailers embracing the power of today’s technology.

“AI is more than ChatGPT,” said Conexxus Executive Director Gray Taylor at this year’s NACS State of the Industry Summit. Convenience retailers are quickly working to implement a host of far-reaching AI innovations in practical ways that show the future is here, said panelists during the “What Near-Term Technology Innovations Really Matter to Convenience Retailers?” session.

The retailer realized personalization is key.

Near-term technology and AI implementation don’t have to just focus on the customer experience. While there’s a lot of focus on how this kind of technology can help a retailer, it’s important to realize that prioritizing technology that can help employees is crucial, too. Making employees’ lives easier helps with retention issues and reduces recruitment and training expenses.

Sanjeev Satturu, the senior vice president/chief information officer at Casey’s General Stores, said the retailer uses technology to make its stores smart and convenient, with a key focus on making things easier for its employees.

“In simple words, it’s about removing friction for our team members,” Satturu said. “If you remove friction for the team members, dedicate more time to them and make their lives better, then you have an employee who’s retained.” At Casey’s, that looks like using technology to help team members run the register, to make it easy for them to know what product to put where at what time, to assist them with cleaning the store and to let them know what items need to be restocked.

“One of our core values is service,” Satturu said about the organization’s Casey’s CARES program, “so we have to serve our team members [too].”

Friendly Express recently implemented self-checkout “as a customer experience, not to replace labor hours,” said Amy Wood, the company’s director of enterprise IT. The retailer also uses technology to help its associates ensure the right products are out on display and to streamline the production planning process. 

At the moment, Friendly Express is going through a testing process with the AI/computer vision the retailer has in one of its stores on the roller grill and grab-and-go areas. 

The technology alerts someone in the kitchen area if half the roller grill is empty, for example. Wood said that sometimes employees “get busy preparing stuff for the hot bar and don’t realize that the roller grill has been depleted. They might not realize that a bus has come in and kids have wiped everything out,” so the alert is useful even for the highest-performing teams. The AI technology also works for the sandwich and pizza areas to help employees stay on top of stock and not get overwhelmed.

“We’ve seen that [the technology] is going to be beneficial,” she said. “And it’s just a gentle reminder, ‘Hey, we’re getting low out there. It doesn’t wait until [an item is] completely out of stock [to alert someone], so we can actually address the issue before we have an out-of-stock situation.”

Satturu said Casey’s realized team members can often be overwhelmed by making pizzas while also having to take phone calls, so the retailer looked to AI for a solution: “How can we automate this voice assistant and provide [an experience] where guests who call get that same, consistent experience?” he said, adding that AI has the capability to upsell, too.

Even if you’re a smaller retailer, you should be thinking about “things that will help remove friction for your team members. You can use [AI] … to get out of that clutter,” said Satturu. “Focus more on what technologies are available that will help you improve productivity.”

Robert Hampton, the VP of technology services and innovation at Jacksons Food Stores, said the retailer makes it a point to ensure employees in the IT department know what employees in-store deal with. IT employees are required to spend time in the field, whether that’s working the register or riding with drivers doing fuel deliveries, “just so we can experience what’s going on.” Hampton credited the program for sparking “ideas to make us better.”

He said Jacksons puts a “bounty” on productivity: “We’ve got a plan to save $1 million in productivity in 2024,” he said, adding that the retailer is “well on [its] way” to reaching that goal.

Jacksons is implementing electronic data interchange (EDI) in small chunks with some of its distributors, which frees store employees to ensure shelves are stocked and bathrooms are clean and gives them more face time with customers. 

“We’re really just trying to pull those tasks away from the store ops personnel so they’re not spending a lot of time checking in orders and things like that,” Hampton said. To that end, he recently went and checked out an autonomous floor scrubber another retailer uses to see if it’s something Jacksons might want to implement. “It takes that task away from the employees, frees them up to do other things, improves retention and things like that.”

NACS Vice President of Research and Education Lori Buss Stillman said after the session: “Every study we do shows us that employee retention and employee satisfaction with their job is so tightly linked to the training that we provide. And as we embrace new technology, providing opportunities to upskill our teams is super, super important.”

Mobile Apps and Other Near-Term Technology

Friendly Express recently revamped its mobile app and has been working to figure out how to make it of value to its customers. “Everyone has an app on their phone, but getting them to use it [can be challenging]. So we’ve had to use some of our data … to find out what’s useful for us.”

The retailer realized personalization is key: If it can give customers a discount on something they buy all the time instead of tell them about a deal on an item they’ve never purchased before, the retailer adds value.

Conexxus’ Taylor said, “I think the key here is that if you’re just throwing stuff at them, you become spam. If you’re throwing things that are relevant to them, you become a valuable partner.”

Casey’s has had success with personalized loyalty programs and with gamification such as its Scratch, Match & Win program. “All those little things really make sense. It’s not the clutter of just blasting [a customer] with promotions and offers. Making those promotions using the data to really personalize [the offers] for the guests makes a huge difference.”

I think culture is the most important part of what we do.”

Another area where technology can help convenience retailers? Friendly Express has partnered with a company to revamp its training program. The retailer heard from employees that the training sessions could be stressful and that team members were having trouble retaining information, so Friendly Express decided to act. Now, the training program is on a mobile app that includes video playlists. The videos are quick (several videos lasting a few minutes each instead of one that goes on for an hour or more), are easy to understand and can be looked at again at any point.

Jacksons has been using AI to monitor in-store audio for about two years now and has it in two stores. One area where the technology is helping the retailer is by quashing common scams such as ones involving gift cards. Hampton said the technology can hear some of those buzzwords and send an alert to the store employee that the phone call is a scam. 

“Another great example is somebody walking in and saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to get an application. I want to work here.’ Wouldn’t it be great to know what the [person] behind the counter said?” said Hampton. Knowing whether the employee responded positively or negatively about their job could provide great insight for retailers.

Audio technology can help with training, too, because it can hear whether an employee tried to upsell a customer. “If you could track and put metrics behind all that and then gamify it to the employees and recognize the good behavior—maybe a $100 gift card for the person who does the most readings or offers the loyalty programs the most frequently—then you can take those audio snippets” and use them to train across the company.

The technology can show specific examples of real-life conversations with customers about offering a two-for-one promo deal and can point out how to approach resistance or can key in on what someone said that made them want to purchase another item. 

“All of that kind of data is great,” Hampton said. “We can take it into a lot of training, which is important, and it really improves employee retention because now you’re rewarding the good behavior.”

Test and Learn, Fail Fast and Take Action

The SOI panelists also talked about the importance of a culture that values innovation to implement technology successfully.

“I think culture is the most important part of what we do,” Friendly Express’ Wood said, noting that it can initially be hard to get buy in from all stakeholders on a new technology. “If you don’t have the support from [everyone], you’re never going to be successful with technology.”

Wood and her team champion the importance of new technology, starting by explaining how it will address specific issues the retailer is experiencing (such as with labor or customer experience). Then, she and her team take things one step at a time and explain each step along the way. 

Satturu added, “Culture is so important because we are in the business of convenience. And in the business of convenience, you transform every day. Culture is the catalyst to allow you to transform.”

Casey’s prioritizes the “culture of tries,” but makes sure everyone has clarity on what it’s trying to do with technology—and why. “When you have clarity, you focus on culture and technology. It’s fascinating how fast technology allows you to enable that culture and build a strong foundation,” said Satturu.

Prioritization Is Key

“Everybody wants to be the latest and greatest ... but you can’t do everything all at once,” said Wood.

Deciding where to start with technology can be tricky because, as Satturu put it, “Everything is our No. 1 priority, right?”

He said that’s why having crystal-clear clarity on an organization’s list of priorities—and their order—is crucial. When Casey’s rolled out its two-year strategic plan, it talked about removing friction. While the retailer knew it couldn’t remove all the friction, it looked at what it could do in three years for its employees and guests to make its stores smart and convenient.

Having the ability to use the word ‘no’ with stakeholders is very, very important.”

But sometimes prioritization comes with challenges—such as saying no. Satturu said “no” needs to be in people’s vocabularies. 

“It’s a powerful word, and it’s very liberating, as well. Being very clear and having the ability to use the word ‘no’ with stakeholders is very, very important.” He added, “Technology is really about focusing on: How can I immediately help the business be aligned to the business goals and be very clear what those business goals are, and then [think about] what needs to happen to go deliver to this business?”

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