CSP Magazine

Opinion: Are We Having Fun Yet?

During a philosophical discussion, a colleague and I came to an unsettling conclusion: One cannot make the fueling experience fun. No matter what you improve, it could never be fun. It is a nuisance, interrupting the flow of a planned day.

However, there are ways to it make it less painful. The convenience-store consumer is focused on three basic needs we provide: food, value and time. The time they fuel at your site is what my grandmother referred to as “a necessary evil.” But the time in the store can be fun.

Less Painful

The easiest pain reducer—and a way to provide value—is to offer a competitive fuel price. There are apps available today that freely display your price as well as your competitors’ prices. Of course, reducing customers’ pain conversely increases your own, and the importance of pricing a penny or two less diminishes when the price of fuel plummets.

The greatest opportunity for reducing pain is at the fuel dispenser. It once was merely a piece of equipment, designed to pump fuel inexpensively. This is why the equipment manager, focused on reducing maintenance costs, often chose the brand and model. But that has been changing as more retailers, in the face of price parity, look to distinguish themselves by improving the overall customer experience. Dispenser manufacturers have evolved in kind, offering attributes that they believe offer a “great customer experience” (i.e., a less painful one).

For example, modifications for PCI and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have created such variations on the transaction process that one often needs to study the dispenser prior to using it, which demands ever more attention from consumers. But more intuitive layouts, prompts and processes built into new dispensers make the process much less painful. This new generation of dispensers especially appeals to our aging population, the fastest-growing demographic on the road.

Adding media to provide entertainment and advertising is meant to make the experience more fun for the consumer and add value for the retailer. But it is important that the media grabs customers’ attention and accurately transmits the message you are trying to deliver. I believe the best format is an integrated approach within the dispenser, in which it becomes part of the fuel purchasing process. The use of such media will render the use of excessive signage at the dispenser pointless. Studies show less is more, so plastering the forecourt with multiple messages to gain ad money should be secondary to generating specific profitable in-store purchases.

A Look at Millennials

Although this is applicable to the general population, let’s focus on millennials, who are America’s largest generation by population and entering their earning prime. They command an estimated $1.3 trillion in annual consumer spending. They come less often for fuel, because they drive much less than ever. But they have an affinity for convenience stores. A recent CSP-Technomic report found that millennials skewed highest among all age groups when asked whether they looked forward to visiting their favorite c-store. And half of this age group qualifies as “super-heavy users,” shopping in c-stores at least four times per week.

Millennials value experiences highly, and they spend time and money on them. When snacking, for example, they enjoy stores that offer unique products that provide nutrition, convenience and value. In fact, snacking overall has increased to the point that it occurs more frequently than meal occasions. Studies conducted by DuPont Nutrition & Health found that 86% of Americans snack daily, and in 2014 47% of them did so 2.8 times a day, an increase from 1.9 in 2010.

C-stores play a major role in satisfying this behavior. According to The NPD Group, about 22% of grab-and-go snacking occasions were sourced from a convenience store (the No. 1 source cited by consumers), followed by 16% at supermarkets.

Millennials also embrace technology and use apps to find the lowest gas prices, or use a retailer’s app to find special deals at the store. The greatest opportunity is an app that will tell them all local fuel prices, regardless of brand, and special deals in stores. This will create a seamless experience, offsetting the continuing effect of less frequent fueling.

The Path Forward

So it is possible to make the fueling experience less painful. Keep signage simple and powerful, with messaging that mirrors your values, promotes your brand and satisfies customers’ needs first—not yours.

Embrace change. Determine what amount of capital you want to invest, supporting your unique strengths. Prioritize those with the greatest return, and seek expertise in defining your niche. Evolve with our industry as we continue to compete against those who seek to blur the channel.

And most of all, have fun!

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