CHICAGO — Apps are driving the c-store channel, but expectations are not being met.
“Apps aren’t keeping people engaged,” said moderator Sam Herro, director of client services at San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based Hathway, a digital growth partner whose specialties include c-stores, at the 2021 NACS Show presentation “Modern Strategies for Customer Engagement and Loyalty.”
Herro (pictured top right) revealed that 83% of consumers would use a convenience-store app, but less than half of the top 150 brands have this capability. In addition, 46% of customers have used a c-store app, but they are not reaching 37% of customers.
These numbers take on greater relevance because for 50% of consumers, a mobile loyalty program is the No. 1 most important technology, followed by mobile coupons, self-checkout, an in-store kiosk, food and beverage ordering, digital menu boards, contactless mobile payments and free Wi-Fi.
And for those who use apps, having a bad app experience results in 24% ceasing purchases from the company in question and another 38% deleting the company’s app or stopping visits to that company’s website.
Art Sebastian (pictured top left), vice president of digital experience at Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s General Stores, said that convenience is no longer a channel, it’s a need state for consumers and retailers. “It’s an actual strategy,” he said. “You want to be convenient, but what does that mean? Think of how shopping is meeting my needs, personalizing my experiences. How do I do that?”
In this critical space, c-stores are behind and must invest in talent and technology to get up to speed, Sebastian said. “Digital is a big space, and many of us are likely focusing on driving e-commerce and loyalty.” There are, however, other areas in the digital space that can be improved upon: store-employee needs, supply chain and logistics and corporate to drive a better internal, seamless experience.
Michael Caldwell (pictured second from right), Fort Worth, Texas-based Yesway’s loyalty manager, added, “Digital solves problems and makes our customers’ lives a little easier, increases efficiency and saves money. We need to invest [in digital] because the customer is looking for that. Digital is in all parts of our lives, so why not at the gas station?”
Digital includes loyalty programs, and consumers want to be rewarded across all lines of business—fuel, retail and food, even at the carwash—and nearly 51% of c-store shoppers want more ways to earn rewards points, according to data from Hathway. Despite these numbers, however, it’s important to keep in mind that a loyalty rewards program is great for trial but is not a strategy, Herro said. “Loyalty is the outcome of a great experience,” he said. “There are other pieces to the whole customer experience: brand, relevant communications, customer engagement and the full customer experience.” And while brands are using digital as a competitive advantage, 56% of brands lack any digital capabilities to support contactless payments, online ordering, loyalty and personalization.
While c-stores in general have work to do, they are in a unique position to capitalize on all the benefits that digital can bring due to the industry's large number of stores and foot traffic, Sebastian added. Traffic can be the same customers in the morning and afternoon, even coming back again for dinner. This puts c-stores in a unique position to connect with consumers, a position even better than grocery stores “who see their best customers once a week or every 10 days,” he said.
Playing off this, Whitney Gretz (pictured second from left), former vice president of digital and loyalty at Miami-based Burger King, advised c-stores to look at digital as a means to advertise. “You can broadly speak to your customers,” she said.
Technology can seem overwhelming, she said, but if retailers look at what they can do with the data received from a loyalty program, the entire process of starting one becomes much more tangible. Considering the use of real-time data, and suggesting a dessert for a customer who did not add one with his or her online order, is just one added upsell opportunity, Gertz said.
But retailers must make sure their technology works right. “If you thank someone for a visit with loyal points, it’s a bad sign if the points don’t load right away,” she said. “The customer wants to know for sure they got the points.”
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