CAPE CORAL, Fla. -- Christians are observing the season of Lent, a time of much introspection and repentance. Being one who adheres to Christian tradition, I realized during some recent visits to convenience stores that those selling fuel in our industry could benefit by taking a closer look at their own practices and customer experiences, and by looking inward with a critical eye, asking how they may be perceived by others. In doing so, they may find a need to repent.
Here are four areas for which many of the industry's fuel retailers should atone.
1. Dirty pumps
It is surprising how many stations have dispensers that are downright filthy. I actually left a gas station recently where the hose and nozzle were so dirty I didn’t want to touch them. This is especially troubling in light of a 2011 study by Kimberly-Clark that tested for bacteria on hundreds of surfaces, from ATMs to elevator buttons, in six major U.S. cities. The dirtiest of them all was gas pumps.
There are two reasons this should be of concern: First, women, who are more in tune with this issue are a valued market segment, and cleaner dispensers could not only attract this segment, but also reflect positively on store standards. Second, as more brands advertise Top Tier-certified fuel, how happy would their customers be if it was dispensed by a dirty pump? In other words, how would you feel about buying spring water in a dirty container?
2. Malfunctioning card readers
I often read complaints on consumer message boards about pumps that are poorly marked, especially when not working or not taking cards. At one gas station visit, I changed pumps three times before finding one that worked.
Another issue is that too many pumps don't have paper to print receipts; instead, I am informed to “See cashier inside for receipt.” While in the eyes of the operator this may be an acceptable alternative, for me as the consumer it is not, because it is time-consuming. I often wonder if this is a ploy to drive traffic inside. If so, it overlooks the fact that some customers choose pumps with a CRIND for the sole reason to not have to go inside. I avoid any return visits to these stores because my time is valuable, and the gas station does not appear to think so.
3. Unwelcoming stores
While some retailers might try to force you into the store, I also have an issue with being forced out of the store. There is a local c-store that I used to shop, until it rebranded and instituted a walk-up window on the side of the building for purchases after 10 p.m. When I asked an employee why the store made this change, I was told it was for safety reasons, because it was a dangerous neighborhood.
I pondered why an upper-income neighborhood was deemed unsafe, especially considering the store's competitor five doors down lets you come in 24 hours a day. Then I looked around me: Teenagers were loitering around the store, cigarette butts lay on the ground, dirt and grime were on the conduits next to the walk-up window, and this was all located next to a dumpster. It would be like inviting my guests to my home, and having them enter through my garage, where I also store my trash cans.
4. Dirty restrooms
Restrooms are one of the most cited ways an operator can improve sales and consumers’ perception of their brand. Our industry, to a great degree, is failing to execute in this area. Even “new era” retailers are falling into bad habits here.
When I tell your store manager about the lack of soap or towels and an abundance of dirt, they may tell me, “Sorry, we just had a rush.” I question that, and I also look at their foodservice personnel rather suspiciously before I leave without a purchase.
A prayer for atonement
In my faith, Lent is a time to look inward and examine your conscience regarding how well you live your faith daily. Although I practice devoutly, each year I find areas in which I could do better in execution.
Let us as an industry benefit from the example and take a critical look at how we execute daily, and hopefully experience our own rebirth. It is not only an individual opportunity, but by raising the bar for the industry, we may also see new sites welcomed into communities rather than be seen as the devil himself.