Touch-Point Tango

Retailers take the lead with customers by using sensory cues to set traffic patterns.

Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

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Subtle yet decisive moves of the hands and torso allow a tango dancer to lead his partner across the floor. While perhaps not quite as elegant as a ballroom, a c-store can house similar cues to set a footpath for impressionable customers.

For Sam Odeh, a three-store Chicago-area operator, plasma screens positioned 10 feet above the floor are drawing customers to less-traveled swaths inside the store.

“I have personally seen customers … stand and watch [TV screens] by certain areas where we could never get them to come close, and start looking around to familiarize and get a bit comfortable,” says Odeh, president of Power Mart, Oak Brook, Ill. “And then they will choose a product from that area that they never intended to buy. It’s amazing!”

Using increasingly more affordable technology to pull customers to slower traffic zones inside the store represents a growing opportunity for retailers.

The plasma screen is just one way the store communicates with the consumer. Truth is, touch points abound. But equally important are the lessobvious, potentially devastating messages customers can pick up if restrooms are dirty or if there’s a disconnect with the portion, packaging and price of a new sandwich.

Kevin Higar, director of operator consulting services for Technomic Inc., Chicago, says consumers are subliminally sensitive to visual, spoken and other sensory cues, whether intentional on the part of the operator or not.

Retailers today need to understand these “touch points,” and know where and how customers engage the store, how these touch points are evolving and how they can influence purchases.

Among the important messages to communicate:

  • Products are of good quality and meet lifestyle needs.
  • The environment is safe and clean.
  • Employees are inclusive and personable.
  • Food can be trusted.
  • My store is special.

Higar has an all-inclusive vision of customer touch points, starting with the core fundamentals and moving outward. “It’s about consistency and being solid on the basics,” he says. “It sounds easy, but it’s hard. They have to happen all the time and occur at a level customers expect.”


In addition to the video screens, Odeh communicates to customers via deli-case signage, fully stocked shelves and architectural motifs that separate wine and liquor, deli and traditional c-store areas.

 The primary goal is what he calls “the wow effect”: creating a memorable initial experience that will make his store stand out. But he also wants to extend the amount of time customers spend in the store without putting an extra burden on sales associates. Visually, he aims to steer customers in the path of specific products, positioning items in “friendly blocks so that we can get them to bounce around like a pingpong, get them to the areas that we want them to be.”

He’s experimenting with specific TV segments based on where the screen is within the store. Although he has an incentive plan for employees to upsell customers, TV provides a “less pushy” option.

In partnership with an area VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) provider, Odeh is also developing the video system for his company’s franchise. He’s placed nine flat-screen 54-inch screens in strategic areas to pull customers from the pump to inside the store. Inside, the screens have increased customer shopping time by 15 to 30 seconds, Odeh says.

His team controls the content in conjunction with his VoIP provider. While not divulging price, Odeh says the system is expensive on the front end, but for the next store it’ll be cheaper because they built the back end. He advises: “Do not try this at home.”


For companies such as Power Mart, foodservice has moved to the forefront, magnifying the importance of touch points and related sensory cues. In his research, Higar cites steps that c-stores have taken to communicate freshness. One example is a store that put a sign at the roller grill reading, “Enjoy the hot dogs in front of the grill as the ones in back are being prepared for your enjoyment later on.”

For the retailer, it may be an issue of conservation and reducing waste, but to the consumer, it looks like the staff pays attention to the product, he says.

If a store wants to communicate freshness, sensory cues include the smell of fresh-baked bread and the sight of employees physically making a sandwich or putting together a salad. “It doesn’t have to be [that customer’s] sandwich that’s being made, but it says, ‘This is fresh,’ ” he says.


Messages resonate from the obvious to the sublime. Customers pick up cues from what retailers choose to promote, from food to merchandise to products, according to Higar. So in his view, messaging starts with executing the basics.

These fundamental elements include customer service, the food itself—especially if an operator decides to venture fully into foodservice—and the store appearance. “With food, people don’t want unforeseen surprises,” he says. “And if the [store] appearance and the bathrooms are not clean, they’re not getting the reassurance that this will work out.”

Moving beyond executing the basics, a critical step is establishing what Higar calls “resonating points of differentiation.” These points are qualities employed to make a retailer stand out in the minds of the public at large.

The areas he emphasizes:

  • Lifestyle integration: How do your products and services fulfill your customer base? Look at time savings, trip conservation, portability and safety.
  • Hospitality: There’s a difference between service and hospitality. The latter puts a spotlight on the customer that can include limited—yet important— customer interaction (e.g., greeting the customer as he/she enters the store).
  • Menu desirability: Offering food items people crave and items that support both the hearty and the healthy consumer fall into this category, as do elements of visual appeal, portion size and menu diversity.
  • Atmosphere: With energy being a goal, the décor, music and how people in the store interact all work to lift customers’ spirits and provide an energizing experience.
  • Concept essence: A successful business message has a sense of mission, Higar says. Those core values should be apparent and communicated throughout the store and beyond, with an outreach into the community.
  • Manager presence: The more the supervisory staff at the store interacts with both employees and customers, the greater the sense of support and assistance if problems arise. A manager’s presence and willingness to help encourages employees to then offer those same positive vibes to the consumer.

As a c-store consumer himself, Higar says he’s often driven past one store for another that is more inviting, well-lit and clean. “[The store] was even on the wrong side of the street for me,” he says. “But it’s what I see [outside, and then] when I walk inside. The issues are consistently solved, visual cues that they’re making things from scratch, not being surprised by temperature or taste. That’s when [a retailer] starts going beyond average to where you’ve got your own signature.”


Social media and mobile devices are quickly becoming touch points that extend beyond store property. Jeff Miller, president of Miller Oil Co., Norfolk, Va., says his company is developing its strategy for networks such as Facebook. “It’s just amazing what you can do and how cheaply you can get to a large number of people,” he says.

Thus far, he says the industry has been in “default” mode, opting to simply list deals of the week on a Facebook site. “But we’ll see a burst of creativity as we figure out the basics on how to manipulate the sites,” he says. “Then it’ll be cool.”

Higar agrees. He’s been surprised at how much anticipation chains can build for a new product by using social networking. But at the same time, he advises retailers to do their due diligence. “If the experience and the product don’t deliver, you’ve lost those people for good,” Higar says. In a sense, in a world of whizzing technologies, from social media to instore plasma screens, the success of a store will ultimately rest on simplicity and human interaction.

“What works when we introduce a new foodservice [offer]? Sampling. Talking to people to get some feedback,” says Miller. “We’ve gone full circle to [simple] relationships.”  

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