Visionary retailers and industry influencers at 40+ NACS Show education sessions helped attendees solve challenges and compete for the time and attention of consumers in today’s disruptive marketplace. Read on for the highlights.
Draw Them in Digitally
Today’s digital world presents retailers with a new frontier for engaging customers and finding new ways to keep them coming back time and again. Casey’s, Yesway and Burger King strategists tackled “Modern Strategies for Customer Engagement and Loyalty,” taking a look at how digital can be part of developing a complete business-to-consumer marketing strategy.
Michael Caldwell, loyalty manager for Yesway; Whitney Gretz, vice president of digital and loyalty at Burger King; and Art Sebastian, vice president of digital customer experience for Casey’s, joined moderator Sam Herro, director of client solutions for digital growth at Hathway, to discuss how their companies have used the digital domain to build and maintain loyalty among their customers.
The key for retailers is to use digital to solve customer problems. “Data gives you new tools,” Herro said, particularly in the high-frequency business of c-stores.
“Convenience is no longer just a channel,” Sebastian said. “It is a need state for consumers and retailers.” Digital is a critical space, and the c-store industry is behind—but can catch up, Sebastian said. “A lot of us focus on e-commerce,” he noted, but there are ways to use digital tools to make stores more efficient, facilitate the supply chain and streamline corporate functions.
Casey’s digital transformation is ongoing, with a new website, mobile app and digital-only loyalty program already in place, so the Iowa-based retailer is shifting to the “accelerating” phase of its digital strategy, Sebastian said. Casey’s new customer data platform captures transaction data, loyalty data and marketing data to provide a single view of each customer to allow Casey’s to personalize experiences.
Burger King’s Gretz stressed the need to research what customers want before testing any program. Customers may tell you they want certain things in a program but then not use them. “The value of testing with real customers in the real world is so powerful,” she said.
The panel also shared thoughts and experiences around delivery. With third-party delivery like DoorDash, “the margins are really bad, and you don’t get the data,” Gretz said. Still, using outside providers can help build volume. First-party delivery, on the other hand, allows companies to capture customer data and build “white label” experiences. “A lot of us believe you need to be in both,” Gretz said. “It’s kind of a winner-takes-all space right now.”
Tips from America’s Gas Station Gourmet
Al Hebert knows gas station food. The writer (and taste-tester) behind the Gas Station Gourmet series has traveled far and wide in search of the best places to grab some grub while you top off the tank. It’s no surprise, then, that “4 Ways to Stand Out as a Small Operator: Tips from the Gas Station Gourmet,” was packed to the brim with insight for c-store owners looking to up their culinary games.
Hebert provided a roundup of four ways he’s seen c-stores across the nation develop loyal fan bases.
1. Feature regional foods.
“Focus on local favorites,” said Hebert. “Whether it’s Kolaches, cheese curds, boudin or gumbo, listen to the customers and the community. Give customers what they want—and also what they don’t know they want. If you’re not from the community and aren’t sure what people in your local market area love to eat, Hebert recommends asking customers and visiting local events to see what’s popular.
2. Become a community store.
“Become a community store—a place where folks feel at home,” Hebert said. “You want customers to look forward to the daily stop at your store. Be ‘their place.’ Your staff will play a key role.”
3. Use social media.
“Social media is so important if you want to compete effectively,” said Hebert. “Post each day. Each day something happens in your store—that is a Facebook or Instagram post. If nothing is happening, post your Customer of the Day.” If you have daily specials, post about those. “Find influencers who will get you new customers,” he added.
4. Keep a clean restroom.
“Clean restrooms will draw customers in,” said Hebert. “Dirty restrooms are etched in the minds of everyone who sees them. Keep them clean. Keep them updated. Do not become the store that people are afraid to patronize when a bathroom break is needed.”
Making the Mobile Connection
Consumers are embracing mobile device connectivity in mass numbers across all demographics. And you don’t have to be fancy to get started in the mobile space, said Kay Segal, managing executive at Business Accelerator Team.
Segal led a panel on “Creating an Integrated Mobile Experience” that outlined the first steps to the digital ecosystem to connect you with your customers before, during and after they walk through your door.
Panelists all agreed that step one to connecting with your customers digitally is making sure they can find you. Although digital proximity searches make it easier than ever for people to locate you, Segal pointed to Google as the “mother of all platforms.” Claiming your business on Google is key. (See sidebar “Project Search.”)
Babir Sultan, CEO of Fav Trip, digitally connects to a million customers each month using a mix of social media and a text club. He encourages c-store owners and operators to try a mix of things to see what works best for customers. “Don’t be intimidated by different platforms,” he said. “Give it three to four months. Start somewhere and be consistent. Your best tool is your phone.”
Amanda St. Romain, marketing director of St. Romain Oil Company LLC and Y-Not Stop convenience stores, searched for the perfect app for connecting with customers. When she couldn’t find it, she developed a custom one. “We wanted our app to do everything in one space so that no customer would have to download multiple apps,” St. Romain said. She wanted an app that offered food ordering, coupons, push notifications, loyalty rewards and more, and she worked with Rovertown to build a branded app they can continually customize.
As you begin connecting with customers on their mobile devices and working with vendors to help make it happen, it is critical to keep technology standards in mind, according to Linda Toth, managing director for Conexxus. Conexxus has created an API Data Dictionary of common language. “Ask vendors if they are using Conexxus standards, and if they aren’t, ask them why,” Toth said.
Digitizing the Back Office
Digitizing your back-end operations can improve your day-to-day store operations and benefit your employees. At the education session, “Digitizing the Back Office,” representatives from WorkJam, Circle K and Chevron talked about how the digitization effort may seem daunting, but the benefits are worth the effort.
Ed Dzadovsky, vice president of North America IT for Circle K, said the convenience sector was, at one point, lagging in digitization, but that is no longer the case. “We were one of the last industries to be touched by digital transformation,” he said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth today.”
Dzadovsky said implementing a digitization system like WorkJam changed the culture at Circle K and improved employee engagement. “We went to an announced store visit with our CEO,” he said. “On the way out the door, the manager asked if he could take a picture and post it to WorkJam.”
Will Eadie, chief revenue officer for WorkJam, said the system has been adopted in 45 countries and more than 45 languages. “And what drives all this?” he asked. “The workplace is as unpredictable as ever. Managers say, ‘I have to hire as many people as I can and keep the people I have.’ And how do you do that? You need tools.”
Pam Beitia, customer success manager for WorkJam, outlined key pain points, including multiple resource locations and access issues, outdated delivery modes and sparse work and life tools. Addressing these areas can lead to happier employees and more productivity.
Diane Sheih, IT manager for Chevron Corp., appeared in a special video presentation to outline that company’s transition to a digital workflow. She said engaging with employees on
all levels—not just the customer experience—was essential for Chevron to make the change. “We discovered a direct correlation between employee experience and customer experience,” she said. “To have happy customers, we had to have happy employees.”
Tech and Transformation
Your business may be surviving the pandemic, but if it’s going to survive the future, a digital transformation is a necessity. Ed Dzadovsky, vice president of North America IT for Circle K, and Gray Taylor, executive director of Conexxus, laid out the path forward for that transformation at the session, “The 2021 NACS/Conexxus Technology Roadmap.”
Dzadovsky said there should be two things top of mind for every retailer: transformation and culture. “If we’ve learned anything since the beginning of the pandemic, it’s that both of these are more important to our people than ever before,” he said.
One of the biggest changes facing c-store owners in the coming years will be energy. “We’re going to see a 20% reduction in fuel demand by 2030,” Taylor said. And that’s not going to come because of EVs, it’s going to come because [vehicle fuel] mileage is going to improve greatly by then. We’ll be traveling more miles, but the mileage will be so good that we’ll be buying less fuel.”
One of the main keys for c-stores going forward is the hyper-customization of data, and owners need to get in front of that now so they can control what data they have and how it is being used. Taylor cited a Harvard Review study showing that, on average, only 4% of the data gathered by an enterprise is useable.
In addition, raising the visibility of mobile platforms among consumers will be essential to the survival of the industry in the future. “We’re competing with Amazon; we’re competing with Starbucks,” Taylor said. “How many convenience store apps do you have on your phone?”
The presenters outlined a roadmap for the coming years and said that in the immediate future, stores can expect to see more digital or “free range” coupons using QR codes and more companies turning to AI checkout systems. In two to five years, retailers will see a greater reliance on deeper data, and in five-plus years, they’ll start to see greater use of real-time pricing, differential pricing between locations and predictive analytics. But before retailers can start any of that, Taylor said they need to invest in people first.
“I would put my first dollars into culture and your staff,” he said. “They can do amazing things with their brains.”