CSP Magazine

Opinion: How to Satisfy Tech-Hungry Customers

Young consumers today desire food choices at their fingertips. As with just about everything else they buy, Gen Zers and millennials want tech that allows them to explore the menu and purchase foodservice items in convenience stores, as well as restaurants. Technology is perceived as inherently convenient and a tool to accelerate transaction time.

The promise of speedy service is a deal breaker for c-store patrons in general. Nearly eight in 10 consumers (78%) say knowing service will be fast will prompt them to visit one c-store over another. The availability of tech-driven order and payment systems likely increases that expectation of speedy service, thus pushing them through a store’s doors.

Want qualitative proof? Asked whether he’d prefer to get a sandwich at a c-store with a touchscreen kiosk or at a store where the employee took the order, my older Gen Z son held up his index finger, saying “Touchscreen. No contest. There’s never a line, I can punch in my order, go get my bottled water and chips, and by the time I’m back the sandwich is ready. And it’s right because I entered it!” The younger one chimed in with  "What he said.” Very unscientific, but telling.

Where to Invest

Every c-store operator should jump on the tech bandwagon, but not without first thinking about what types of consumer-facing foodservice tech will work best for your customers and your operation. Strategic decisions about customer-facing foodservice tech will yield the greatest ROI.

First, ask whether your core customer is younger than 40. If so, you’re serving a tech-savvy consumer who expects amenities such as touchscreen ordering kiosks, apps and cashless transaction options in a foodservice environment. If your core customer is 40 or older, consumer-facing tech for foodservice may not be as much of a priority. But that raises the question of whether you’d like to attract more Gen Zers and millennials and which tech options are most likely to do so.

The next question to ask is which amenities resonate and will affect consumer behavior.

Research conducted by Technomic, covered in this issue (see p. 41), shows younger consumers overindex significantly (10 points or more) on the likelihood of using touchscreen order/payment kiosks in the foodservice area and at the gas pump.

These patrons are more likely to avail themselves of mobile order and payment options via their smartphones and to use self-service checkout for foodservice purchases than their elders are.

These consumers have a higher propensity for using a mobile device to locate a c-store, review available items and order food and beverages for pickup or delivery. What’s more, smartphone-enabled loyalty programs are preferred over database look-up and punch-card programs by younger consumers for limited-service foodservice venues.

The study also identified a few places where c-stores appear to be winning against fast-food operators:

  • Sixty-four percent of millennials are likely to use touchscreen kiosks for foodservice order and payment if available in a c-store, vs. 41% who are likely to do so in a limited-service restaurant.
  • Fifty-six percent of consumers say technology improves their c-store foodservice experience, vs. 48% of those who say the same for the quick-service restaurants.

How to Implement

Young consumers essentially are willing to engage in all types of consumer-facing tech to access c-store foodservice, which presents tremendous opportunity for retailers to differentiate and compete, but also significant challenges. What are the implications of implementing such amenities on your overall operation? From order intake to prep-line setup, from recipes to accommodating customization requests, every step will likely need to be adjusted or completely recast.

Also, make sure staff members are comfortable with a tech-driven ordering system and train them appropriately. Ensure resources will be committed to mining and analyzing the data yielded by the ordering system to better anticipate sales, understand customer preferences and manage inventories.

C-stores adding customer-facing tech to their foodservice programs must identify what will be most meaningful to their current and future customers, and think through the implications on the entire store and the organization in order to maximize the opportunity and achieve the full benefits of the technology.

Donna Hood Crecca is associate principal of Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm Technomic. Reach her at dcrecca@technomic.com.

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