Do You Crypto?
Cryptocurrency is still in the early stage of development in the convenience-store industry. Only a handful of locations (less than 5% of total stores) are accepting this type of payment, while slightly more than 10% have some form of a bitcoin kiosk, according to one crypto industry leader. However, crypto is starting to catch on in the c-store world.
“Self-service digital currency machines (DCM), sometimes called bitcoin ATMs (BATM) or bitcoin teller machines (BTM) are still relatively new to the convenience environment but becoming more prevalent,” said Michael Tomlinson, chief revenue officer at Coin Cloud, which has nearly 6,000 DCMs, half of which are located in convenience stores, including 7-Eleven, Allsups, Cumberland Farms, Royal Farms, Thorntons, Yesway and several other c-store partners.
Convenience retailer Circle K, owned by Canada-based Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., was reportedly the first major retail chain to deploy bitcoin ATMs in its stores in 2021 via an agreement with Bitcoin Depot. The Atlanta-based fintech company, which in August struck an $885 million deal with GSR II Meteora Acquisition Corp. to go public, has more than 7,000 kiosk locations in 47 U.S. states and nine Canadian provinces, where users can convert their cash into bitcoin, ethereum and litecoin. Through a partnership with an unnamed payment solutions provider, Bitcoin Depot said its BDCheckout platform also enables customers to fund their Bitcoin Depot accounts with cash at more than 8,000 locations at major retailers, including Circle K.
Despite recent downturns in cryptocurrency valuations, interest is still growing in crypto and its potential to positively contribute to the future of financial services.
At c-stores, cryptocurrency use cases surrounding on-ramps and cross-border payments are where we’ve seen the most growth, and we believe paying for goods and services is the next area poised for a strong uptick in adoption and usage."
The number of cryptocurrency ATMs from various providers has surpassed 39,000 worldwide, and c-stores play a big role in this business segment, representing more than half of all locations. The U.S. has more than 34,000 crypto ATMs, accounting for nearly 88% of the global market, according to coinatmradar.com data.
David Wilkinson, president and general manager of NCR Retail, notes that ATMs that enable customers to purchase bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are widely deployed by convenience stores and are being enhanced to offer additional digital financial services, especially for people without U.S. bank accounts or those who regularly send money to family members living outside the U.S.
“The majority of NCR’s customers that offer foreign remittances powered by the bitcoin network are convenience retailers, and the growth in self-service kiosks will increase access to underserved customers,” Wilkinson said.
As Wilkinson explains, consumer adoption has grown steadily in recent years, with global crypto ownership estimated to exceed $320 million, according to a study by TripleA, a company that evaluates how consumers and businesses are connected through blockchain technology and cryptocurrency.
“As more consumers own cryptocurrency, particularly younger generations, retailers will expand ways to offer and accept it at their stores,” Wilkinson said.
While still early in the adoption cycle, convenience retailers are increasingly accepting cryptocurrency payments for purchases. For example, Sheetz, based in Altoona, Pennsylvania, became the first convenience retailer to accept bitcoin and other digital currencies in-store and at the pump in 2021.
“At c-stores, cryptocurrency use cases surrounding on-ramps and cross-border payments are where we’ve seen the most growth, and we believe paying for goods and services is the next area poised for a strong uptick in adoption and usage,” Wilkinson said.
THE CRYPTO CUSTOMER
Understanding the crypto customer is paramount for the success of crypto in the c-store environment. David Charles, president and owner of Cash Depot, explained that crypto is here, and people do buy it.
"There is a cash customer who will buy crypto in convenience. So, if you understand who your crypto customer is, it’s the same customer that uses ATMs; the same customer that does pay at the pump; the same customer that pays cash for lottery tickets, beer and cigarettes. The cash customer who does everything in a cash environment also does cash in crypto. And they pay a premium to do that in cash” in terms of ATM fees.
Charles also stressed that the business cost of serving crypto customers, along with the store space, the equipment and the couriers, is expensive for merchants and crypto operators alike.
“To make it work, you need a pretty high volume of business for everybody to make money—something in the range of $1,500 a day,” Charles said. “The problem is you can no longer really make money in the crypto business in the c-store if you are a crypto operator in the traditional sense. For the last two years, people would install a $6,000 or $7,000 machine, spend $600 or $700 a month running it, and then pay rent to the merchant at pretty high numbers and maybe even give them a piece of the revenue,” he said.
To offset the cost of deployment, Charles said the next-generation solution is to incorporate crypto services into equipment that does multiple functions.
“My advice to the merchant is to know the company you’re doing business with. Finding a good credible partner is one of the critical keys to look at right now,” he said. “Don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re providing a service to your customer. And you’re getting revenue from two square feet of floor space, and if you have it available and if the rent is acceptable, that’s pretty much the whole deal.”
To make it work, you need a pretty high volume of business for everybody to make money–something in the range of $1,500 a day."
As with any new technology or innovation, cryptocurrency brings additional challenges for c-store retailers. Many of these depend on where retailers are in their cryptocurrency journey.
For Bill Douglass, chairman of Douglass Distributing, the adoption and integration of cryptocurrency within his Sherman, Texas-based company’s c-stores has proved to be less than ideal because of the currency’s volatility.
“It was the hot thing for Wall Street, and of course, lots of people jumped in and started their own crypto companies,” Douglass said. “We decided that we would try it with bitcoin. It started off paying some, but we haven’t been paid by bitcoin yet this year. So, it’s really slowed down.”
While Douglass has six cryptocurrency machines in his c-stores, they are “only being used as a depository at this point,” he said. “We also don’t accept any payments in cryptocurrency in our stores at this time.”
For c-stores interested in exploring cryptocurrency, Wilkinson advised retailers to identify partners that can help internal stakeholders understand the technology and build consensus on strategic priorities for their brand. Also, retailers should involve representatives from across their organization to make decisions regarding infrastructure, compliance, security and go-to-market strategy.
“As retailers progress toward developing detailed designs, seek out technology partners that have the licenses and proven operational experience to provide your customers with a secure and compliant solution,” Wilkinson said.
C-stores are optimized for speed and efficiency, so it’s also important to consider the user experience. For example, returns and refunds take on a new dimension when dealing with fluctuating cryptocurrency exchange rates.
“Working with an experienced service designer on a small number of pilot locations will enable you to iterate toward a low-friction design that is intuitive for both employees and shoppers,” Wilkinson said.
While education and awareness of digital asset technologies continues to improve, many retailers have yet to prioritize the development of a holistic crypto strategy. As Wilkinson pointed out, the market may have cooled off in recent months, but counterintuitively this represents the best time to begin planning and executing without the noise and distraction of an overheated market.
Of course, for some c-store retailers, the adoption of cryptocurrencies is a differentiator, with early adopters attracting new customers and enhancing their brand perception. For others, the crypto environment needs to stabilize in order for them to become true proponents of this digital currency.
LOCKING IN LOYALTY
“An emerging opportunity is the use of digital assets as a differentiator for customer loyalty and rewards programs. Whether as points paid in bitcoin or a digital collectible, retailers are exploring novel ways to engage with their customers using digital assets,” Wilkinson said.
An emerging opportunity is the use of digital assets as a differentiator for customer loyalty and rewards programs."
Most retail loyalty programs today are traditional earn-and-burn programs where consumers earn points as they shop. However, as consumers build up rewards, these assets represent a liability for retailers that can be redeemed unpredictably.
“By integrating digital assets like bitcoin into loyalty programs, the incentives can become assets and bring broader market value to both consumers and retailers,” Wilkinson said.
The experts at NCR expect to see continued growth in cryptocurrency-enabled ATMs and foreign remittance, and while growing off a low baseline, payments and loyalty program use cases are poised for a strong uptick in adoption.
“Crypto has taken longer to mature in terms of providing a widely adopted alternative to the traditional payments system, but there is still a significant opportunity there,” Wilkinson said. In a June 2022 Deloitte study, nearly 75% of responding retailers surveyed in December 2021 indicated that they plan to accept cryptocurrency payments within the next 24 months. About 85% of merchants surveyed said they expect suppliers in their industry to widely adopt digital currency payments within the next five years.
“This alternative form of payment is continually being adopted by a growing number of retailers, including convenience stores,” said Ray Taddeo, vice president of sales at Coin Cloud.
Taddeo said cryptocurrency is a benefit to the retailer because it’s a cheaper form of payment acceptance than credit and debit cards, offering a way to reduce swipe fees. Holders of digital currencies are also looking for a way to use their tokens in retail without the hassle of converting to fiat and reverting to traditional payment methods.
“In addition to offering customers the ability to buy and sell with a digital currency machine, the retailer will be able to provide customers with a way to buy, sell and spend their holdings efficiently,” Taddeo said. “We continually advise retailers to explore this space and understand the opportunity to save on payment costs as well as offer additional forms of payment acceptance from their consumers.”