CHICAGO — From a fully automated vending machine to embracing solar and one’s community, diversifying and standing out from the competition, the “Ideas 2 Go” video presentation at the last day of the 2021 NACS Show in Chicago was full of inspirational ideas.
The presentation began, however, with a cautionary video from Lori Stillman, vice president of research at NACS, visiting convenience stores in northern Virginia looking for products via voice search on her smartphone. She asked Siri where she could find the nearest cigar, ATM, propane fuel, cup of coffee, wine, ice coffee, beer, doughnut and car wash. Each time, shockingly, while at a convenience store, she was directed to leave the store and visit an establishment that wasn’t a c-store.
Finally, she was successful, when seeking a hoagie while at a Wawa.
“So,” the words on the screen read, “Does voice search matter to the convenience shopper?”
NACS President Henry Armour (pictured) was on stage to present the videos, and when this first one ended, he asked, “How do we compete in an ever-increasing digital world, with online ordering, more consumers adopting voice search, last-mile delivery. How people search and shop is all changing, and the question is: Will they find you?
“We at NACS see the evolution of technology as a critical catalyst to wining future trips and building bigger baskets,” he said
He added that by embracing technology, a c-store is telling customers it can meet their needs right now and have what they want.
“Abraham Lincoln said the best way to predict the future was to create it,” Armour said. “The future of convenience is really being crafted in this age of digital disruption. There’s no one better to create that than you.”
Click through to read more about the video presentation …
The presentation segued to Chinese high-tech convenience store Fook, which aims to unlock the potential of smart technology to make life easier. Some of the featured high-tech uses included:
- Contactless facial recognition payment
- Contactless QR code order and payment
- A food safety management system whereby customers scan a QR code and can then make an informed choice of where the product comes from and whether it is nearly expired food
Following up on this, Fook sets a dedicated food bank stocked with nearly expired products. This helps solve food waste and the illicit return of this food to the market; instead, it is donated to poor people.
Finally, in Fook stores are e-government self-service centers for citizens to access nearly 200 public services including social security, medical care, transportation, housing, police, employment, corporate services and notary service.
A foodservice program by Swiss-based c-store chain Migrolino called “Pick me 24/7” allows customers to order a variety of food and beverages from their phones or at a touchscreen at the location and pay touchlessly with a credit card or smartphone.
They then scan a receipt, and a completely automated system dispenses products from two temperature zones: cooled and uncooled. Food and beverages are dispensed on a conveyor belt. “A key element in the operation of ‘Pick me 24/7’ is our fully automated logistic solution for small batches,” a caption reads.
Employees place the products on a conveyor belt. Products are then sorted automatically by the company’s robotic technology.
“Customers aren’t coming because our Gatorades are colder than the folks across the street. They’re coming because of our people, and we make our customers feel like celebrities,” Gordon Sutton, president of Tiger Fuel, said in the video’s next section, which highlighted Tiger Fuel’s The Market, in Charlottesville, Va., which has embraced solar power (pictured).
“It makes sense for convenience stores. Utilities are one of the top three costs for c-stores” said Russ Edwards, president of Tiger Solar, which was created after Tiger Fuel acquired Altenergy in May 2021. “Why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of generating electricity on your own property?”
He added that it made a lot of sense to take advantage of all the unused canopy space and put it to work, “providing clean energy that’ll save us money down the road.”
“In the short term, this is a quick payback on the investment, and in the long term, it’s not a system that requires maintenance,” Edwards said.
Sutton added: “In six to seven years, the system pays for itself, then for 25 years or more that’s free energy.”
Tiger Fuel’s The Market has offered a deli concept called Gourmet To Go since 2002. Tiger Fuel also partners with local vendors and is involved in charitable causes such as Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“Wawa’s social purpose is really an extension of our core purpose: To fulfill lives every day for our customers, our communities and each other,” said Chris Gheysens, president and CEO of Wawa, Pa.-based Wawa. To this there are our pillars:
- Valuing our associates: Nurturing the people at the heart of our core purpose.
- Providing safe and trusted products.
- Protecting the environment: Ensuring a cleaner, safer world for current and future generations.
- Supporting our community: Building stronger communities through care, compassion and kindness.
Gheysens said that Wawa is 40% employee owned. “It’s taking care of them through that ESOP vehicle for their retirement,” he said. Mia Whaley, an associate service center representative, added, “As an associate owner, it feels inclusive. I feel like I’m a part of this. This is my business as well.”
Barbara Ennis, senior manager of executive office relationship, said that Wawa tries to nurture associates through life events. Its Associates in Need Fund, a 501(c)(3), helps those needing financial assistance. Wawa also has a solar program and the Wawa Foundation, one of Wawa’s biggest programs, which has donated $100 million to nonprofits.
“These are the things that just make the world better,” Gheysens said. “These things affect the brand you’re building, and if you do it long enough and well enough and believe it, it has a profound effect not just on your bottom line but for your community.”
The Pride Stores
“Nobody enjoys buying gas, so what we try to do is make it an enjoyable experience for things that people do enjoy: like good food, nice craft beer, a nice selection of wine, a nice selection of spirits, sandwiches, multiple restaurant concepts,” said Mario Spina, owner and CEO, Parent Petroleum, St. Charles, Ill., which runs 16 Pride Stores in the Chicago area.
That food includes the diner Urban Counter, which offers make-to-order half-pound burgers and sandwiches. In the location showcased in the video, Urban Counter, the first restaurant concept, is now part of The Pride of St. Charles, a complex near the gas station that also boasts a liquor store and 93 Octane Brewery (pictured), which sells freshly made craft beer. Head brewer Alex Makowski said there are 25 chairs inside, outside seats, 12 beers on tap and “the feel of a garage.”
Another concept restaurant is Taco Urbano, a Mexican restaurant, though not every location has every restaurant.
“Some locations we don’t have space for a hood,” Spina said. “We needed something really quick that is easy to execute and doesn’t have high labor. That’s where we came up with The Pride Café.” He said they developed different concepts based on floor plans and square footage.
“We try to do a lot of things to differentiate ourselves and make it a fun experience for the customer, because once again, if they’re coming here just for gas, they’re probably going to go anywhere,” Spina said. Part of that differentiation is a playful sign pointing to the car wash that reads: “Dirty cars.”
Parent Petroleum also has a partnership with the Chicago Blackhawks and designates gas pump sales for charities.
“That’s the cool thing about the convenience store restaurant business: You have to try stuff,” Spina said.
Christopher Peckat, director of purchasing, said, “As much as the customers think of us as a gas station, we are a lot more. You get a full all-around experience.”
“Why evolve? Because the customer’s evolving every single minute of every day, and with technology, it’s tenfold of what it was 15, 20 years ago,” said Brad Williams, senior vice president of operations and restaurant platforms at 7-Eleven.
With that mindset, Irving, Texas-based 7-Eleven uses its Evolution Stores “to be living laboratories where we can pull in and test a broad swath of new ideas,” said Molly Long, vice president of store evolution and design.
7-Eleven also has been experimenting with drive-thrus at both c-stores and the restaurants.
“One of the goals with these Evolution stores, because they are meant to be learning labs, is to be able to experiment with a different variety of sizes and footprints,” Long said.
“If you don’t have community involvement, it just doesn’t work because people expect that and want that,” said Kurt Weigel, recruiting manager, Weigel’s, the last c-store featured in the video.
Powell, Tenn.-based Weigel’s, which started as a dairy, recently celebrated its 90th anniversary and gave away a prize each day, one each to a customer in the loyalty program and to an employee, for 90 days.
Going back to its roots, Weigel’s expanded upon its chocolate and strawberry milk flavors to LTOs including peanut butter chocolate milk, a blue-colored birthday cake milk (pictured, to celebrate 90 years) and an orange creamsicle milk.
“We didn’t know how people would adopt to the different col9rs of the milk, but it’s been outstanding,” said Doug Yawberry, president, Weigel’s. “They can’t wait for us to get the new flavor in. We’re dropping in a new flavor about every 90 days.
The video closed with one aspect of Weigel’s commitment to its community, how it helped raised money for a disabled, now retired, 26-year Army veteran, Sgt. Maj. Chuck Stewart, to pay for his highly trained service dog. The dog got the name “Wiggles” in a customer contest.
Weigel’s had found out about Stewart’s situation and chose to help. It has since made Smoky Mountain Service Dogs, which custom-trains the dogs to give mobility assistance to severely wounded veterans, a charity it regularly supports.
“It’s $25,000 for a dog,” Stewart said. “It’s like you just know you won the Lotto.”