Back in 2007, market research firm Yankelovich estimated that the average person saw as many as 5,000 advertising messages every day. And although no one has bothered to formally update that fact, advertising professionals suspect the number has doubled in the past 13 years due to the internet and new technologies.
With all those messages bombarding them, individuals naturally create their own screening process, ignoring the inconsequential and focusing on what’s of interest. But there are ways to cut through the clutter and communicate with convenience store customers, and you don’t need a Super Bowl ad or a highway billboard to do it.
Today, as digital tools supersede most other forms of communication, the future of customer communications is personalization, according to Gavin Bradley, senior creative director of digital technology for Harbor Retail, a Michigan-based retail design firm. Forget the single TV commercial that is broadcast to everyone. Customized digital technology allows messages to be targeted to individual consumers.
Customizable, hyper-relevant and curated content is not new. Customers are used to personalization from their years online.
“The idea of customizable, hyper-relevant and curated content is not new. Customers are used to personalization from their years online,” Bradley said. “There’s a plethora of data that retailers and brand partners can leverage. They know what’s selling, what people buy and when. The goal is to turn this information into actionable insights, to make someone at the pump want to spend one extra dollar. It’s a personalized way to gain conversion, which leads to repeat purchases and loyalty.”
Loyalty programs provide metrics and data from customer profiles. “Yet, most convenience retailers have not yet applied this data to their content strategies to propel customer actions and generate revenue,” he said.
Fuel customers are a captive audience, standing at the fuel pump for more than four minutes on average. “That’s a great opportunity to speak to them in an intimate, personal manner,” Bradley said. “Strong digital content strategies are based on programmatic marketing, a marketing strategy that allows you to advertise to specific users with hyper-targeted, super-effective ads. The best practices of programmatic strategies include revenue generation and/or loyalty outcomes for each party—the retailer, the fuel partner, retailer brands and the customer.”
Some in the c-store industry have been slow to adopt new technologies because of operational constraints and budgets, but that’s changing. Personalized, hyper-relevant digital content can be delivered anywhere inside or outside the store. The key is to partner on the programmatic content with brands that are committed to enhancing the retail experience.
“Imagine your pumps during gas refill rushes,” said Bradley. “You want all of those customers to come inside for an added purchase. Your 25- to 35-year-old male driving a Honda will have different desires and budget compared to your 45- to 55-year-old female driving a Mercedes. Without violating privacy, connected systems between cameras and screens can determine the most relevant content for a specific individual based on biographics and daypart. One customer might see an ad [at the pump] for a candy and soda combo, while another customer might be served a promotion for a coffee and bagel.”
Bradley describes digital content technology as “high return, effective and flexible. It’s the way of the future and very powerful. It’s not that expensive to test. You can test one store, evaluate the ROI and then do a scaled rollout.”
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Outdoor signage can help draw customers into the forecourt. Today’s products are durable, flexible and let retailers communicate up-to-the-second information. Digital messaging can be installed inside pumps, on columns next to the pump or as pump toppers.
In the past, digital signage was expensive, hard to maintain and had a three-year lifespan. Today’s signs are less costly, much larger and brighter and last about five years, according to IV Dickson, vice president of digital signage at SageNet, a technology solutions company in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“We offer a 55-inch, dual-sided indoor/outdoor screen that can feature a separate message on each side,” he said. “The outside-facing screen offers high-visibility in bright sunlight, even through glass. We also offer outdoor units that can stay out in the elements and even be power washed. System-on-a-chip technology and new cabling standards have greatly reduced costs and simplified implementation.”
SageNet also offers a transparent LED film embedded with light diodes that can cover a glass window. “It’s less than 1/16-inch thick, and it’s a wow-factor solution,” Dickson said. “When connected to a media player it becomes a motion graphics display showing digital content on your store window, but people inside the store can still see out.”
Digital menu boards allow foodservice operators to display multimedia content, changing the message based on daypart, inventory and promotions. “Drive-thru digital menu boards can upsell with a very personal message if you have the customer’s loyalty information and you know what they like,” said Dickson. “When there are no customers in the drive-thru, the digital menu turns into a full-screen billboard that is visible from the street.”
Drive-thru digital menu boards can upsell with a very personal message if you have the customer’s loyalty information and you know what they like.
Another way to earn that extra dollar per transaction is to install technology that lets customers order food and merchandise at the pump.
“By giving them the option of ordering and paying through digital interfaces—either prior to getting to the pump or at the pump—the order can be prepared by the time the customer has pumped fuel,” said Dickson. “This communication path lets consumers order what they need in a trusted environment—their phone. And the order can be delivered to the customer at the pump with minimal human interaction.”
Once a far-fetched concept, this technology is convenient and safe in the time of COVID when grocery stores and restaurants allow hungry consumers to order and pay from their smartphones and then pick up curbside.
Cost is a consideration with any new equipment, but technology always gets cheaper. “Every year it comes down,” Dickson said. “If you can’t do it now, check again in six months. The upfront cost may be miniscule compared to you fulfilling your objective.”
Digital communication also can simplify daily chores. Rutter’s, the York, Pennsylvania-based chain, uses PriceAdvantage software and Skyline Price Signs to optimize fuel prices and streamline the price-change process. The patented software solution lets retailers optimize and manage fuel prices, then automatically execute and verify price changes to the POS, pumps and price signs from anywhere using a laptop or mobile app.
“I can quickly react to market movement at my desk and on my mobile phone,” said Chris Hartman, director of fuel and forecourt, Rutter’s. Hartman established pricing rules for Rutter’s stores within PriceAdvantage, including competitor information and desired margins, and he reviews information several times each day to ensure that fuel is appropriately priced.
“PriceAdvantage ensures that the price change process prevents us from having a posted sign price that is lower than the pump price,” he said.
Communicating with customers goes beyond signage and advertising. According to Mike Lawshe, president of Fort Worth, Texas-based Paragon Solutions design firm, a store communicates to customers when it has a bright, well-lit forecourt and clean restrooms.
“What is the message that you’re communicating with your architecture?” Lawshe asked. “Say you pull up to a store and off to the side you see a grassy area with a pergola and outdoor seating. What’s the message? They have an expanded food program that they’re proud of, or they’re doing something that you should check out.”
Digital menu boards allow foodservice operators to change the message based on daypart.
Little things say a lot, and “if you care about your people in this pandemic, you should have sanitizer and towels at every pump,” he said. “If you don’t—and your trash is overflowing and there’s gum all over the place—that’s a message, too.”
CHS, the global foods and agricultural cooperative based in Minnesota, owns 50 c-stores and supplies fuel to 1,450 more under the Cenex brand. To keep the stations looking sharp and inviting, the company recently launched a program that will refresh the forecourts of each location over the next four years.
“This includes a new canopy fascia, new logo signage on canopies and new LED lightening elements around the canopy,” said Akhtar Hussain, director of refined fuels marketing, CHS. “Plus, everything will be enhanced with new pump graphics, refaced price signs and paint.”
Called the LIFT initiative, the updates will cost Cenex brand dealers nothing, and dealers have the option of contracting an added interior remodel “that we’re subsidizing through zero interest loans for five years,” he said. When the individual remodels are complete, CHS will launch a social media campaign in the appropriate ZIP codes to inform consumers of the changes.
“When you look at the aging population of c-stores out there, a lot of them would benefit from remodeling, especially with the emergence of a lot of new regional competitors,” Hussain said. “Consumer expectations have evolved. For our brand to remain relevant with consumers, we must bridge the gap between the expectations they have of our regional competitors and us. We think adding that lighting and modernizing our look will be the first step in making that consumer stop by. And following it up with improvements inside the store will really pay off.”