How the Fuel and C-Store Industry is Responding to the Digital Acceleration

Over the past 18 months, many brands survived a tumultuous time by leveraging the digital capabilities of their customer loyalty and rewards programs to maintain, and strengthen in some cases, their connection with consumers and provide a more frictionless experience.

While it is clear that digitally mature companies will have an easier time meeting the challenges that lie ahead, many brands continue to have a substantial need to evolve digitally to level necessary to meet the rapid acceleration of customer expectations.

Layne-Anonsen.jpgLayne Anonsen, Director of Client Insights at SMG, says fuel and c-store brands can assess whether they are ready to meet rising customer demands on a digital level by leveraging their data.

“They should take a dive deep into app penetration and customer feedback alongside UX studies to uncover whether the technology they have in place is easy and convenient,” Anonsen says. “Consumers in the c-store space are motivated by what is easiest to use; assess your current solution with that in mind.”

Doing What is Expected by the Consumer

Brandon-Logsdon-Small-(1).jpgBrandon Logsdon, President of PDI Marketing Cloud Solutions, adds that it is important to parse what aspects of digital function are utility and expected by the consumer versus those that are not expectations but might be value-add and strategically aligned to the operations and go-to-market strategy of the retailer.

“For instance, merging payment and loyalty into a single mobile app experience is expected by today’s consumer – nobody wants two apps for the same retailer,” Logsdon says. “However, as an example, in-store frictionless mobile checkout, although compelling, doesn’t yet have the same level of ubiquitous expectation from consumers.”

David-VanWiggeren-Droptank.jpegDavid VanWiggeren, CEO at Drop Tank, says that for brands to assess whether they’re ready to meet the customer’s growing digital expectations, the brand first needs a clear understanding of where digital is going in the industry.

“We encourage our clients to conduct customer pulse surveys, review competitor analyses, and work with thought leaders,” VanWiggeren says. “It’s simple stuff, but it’s surprising how many brands don’t have a handle on what’s coming.”

justin-bowser-headshot.pngMeanwhile, “Innovate or die” has never been more salient for brands, says Justin Bowser, Chief Operations Officer at HTK. He says brands need to assess whether they have a digital strategy and a customer data strategy that are fit for purpose.

“‘Digital’ and ‘data’ go hand-in-hand because increasingly c-store and fuel retail will be about fitting into customers' lifestyles rather than impulse purchases,” Bowser says. “Without the right data or an understanding of how that data will be used to "nudge" customers back into the store, brands will struggle to stay relevant.”

Steps for Seamless Integration of New Digital Capabilities

There are numerous steps that brands can take to ensure seamless integration of new digital capabilities with existing systems in order to provide a frictionless experience for consumers.

Bowser says it is all about reducing friction and making digital services so good that customers will want to use them. He says there will inevitably be technical barriers.

“But start by thinking ‘what if ...’” Bowser advises. “What if our mobile app magically popped up a relevant offer just when a customer was starting to think about their next fill-up? What if we could take payment, burn a loyalty voucher, and award points in a single tap of the customer's phone at the POS?”

He says to start with those customer-centric goals in mind — because convenience stores should be “convenient,” including the payment and loyalty process — and involve the whole team in that ideation process.
“With a good tech team that's fully engaged in the process, they'll hopefully focus on ‘solutions’ rather than ‘problems,’” Bowser says.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

As for necessary steps, VanWiggeren says this is where the rubber meets the road. Brands that make regular investments in retail technology platforms — particularly POS and managed networks — find themselves with options when it comes to new technology.

“If the interface between the consumer and the back office is weak, frictionless experiences are next to impossible,” VanWiggeren says.

Eric-Favaloro-Comarch.jpegEric Favaloro, who is responsible for managing Comarch’s loyalty clients in the United States, says that while fuel stations and c-stores were certainly evolving their digital capabilities before 2020, they were forced to significantly accelerate those efforts during the worldwide pandemic.

“With fewer human employees being physically available — and the emphasis on social distancing and contact-free interaction — digital CX is more important than ever,” Favaloro says.

In order to ensure a frictionless experience, he says brands should commit a substantial amount of time to stress-testing and bug-fixing within test environments before going live on production. Additionally, Favaloro says a comprehensive marketing plan should be dedicated to the new capabilities to not simply announce the coming changes but ensuring that customers — especially frequent shoppers and active loyalty program members — are well aware of how these additional functionalities will impact their shopping experience.

“To deal with any post-launch confusion that may still arise, additional training for customer service representatives is never a bad thing,” Favaloro says.

Digital Endeavors Should Connect with Existing Systems

Ideally, Logsdon says digital endeavors should connect with existing systems in a manner that is transparent to the consumer.

“Retailers and brands should not rush capabilities to market,” he says. “There is truth in the adage that you only get one chance to make a good first impression. The industry is moving fast, and there are a lot of tech companies coming on the scene to capitalize on the trends.”

Logsdon also says be wary of companies that don’t have multiple successful implementations in the market that look like the one you want.

“It’s easy to say what you ‘will’ do,” he says. “It’s a whole different thing to actually do it.”

Best Practices When Establishing Digital Evolution Roadmap

There are several best practices that fuel and c-store brands should utilize when establishing their digital evolution roadmap, especially with a focus on cultivating a streamlined, omnichannel relationship with their consumers.

Anonsen says brands should use geofencing to know when their customers are onsite to drive them into the store for a holistic experience.

“If the customer is on-site in July, pop-up a window to entice them with a cold beverage at a discount,” she says. “Keep in mind consumers are always wanting to know ‘what’s in it for me?’ – if they are going to engage with you digitally, then you need to engage with them as well.”

She also suggests never allowing a brand’s digital solution to idle and just take up space; she says customers need to be interacting with a brand consistently, or their app will be on the chopping block.

“Find ways to engage your customers to stay relevant,” Anonsen says. “Use data to get to know them and their behaviors so you can have a positive influence on their buying behaviors.”

VanWiggeren says digital evolution impacts sales, marketing, and operations — and not just IT — therefore, it takes business unit leadership to seek out and establish the vision for the brand’s digital evolution.
“Asking for that vision to come from marketing or IT alone is a common mistake,” VanWiggeren says.

“Business leaders need to champion this change.”

Efficient Execution Hinges Using Data In ‘Real-Time

Bowser says go back to the “what if ...” game he described earlier, and then go to the data. Once a brand knows what they want to achieve, efficient execution will often hinge on the ability to use that data in “real-time.”

“If you don't know what you need, you can probably find those answers in your customer data,” he says. “It has never been more important to have a solid strategy for responsibly acquiring, analyzing, and activating customer data.”

Who knows what digital services customers will be using in 3-5 years' time, Bowser says. With the right foundational capabilities for managing a brand’s data so they can respond to customer needs “as they happen, whatever the channel,” he says brands will have far better prospects for thriving in an uncertain future.

Logsdon reminds us that there is an adage in ice hockey: you don’t want to be where the puck is; you want to be where the puck is going.

“This type of thinking applies to digital transformation as well,” he says. “It’s important to make decisions today that have the end in mind. Working backward from a visionary goal state positions the company to make the next best decision in the current tense, without losing sight of the ‘art of the possible.’”
Thank you to our expert panel:
Layne Anonsen, Director of Client Insights at SMG
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Brandon Logsdon, President at PDI Cloud Solutions
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David VanWiggeren, CEO at DropTank
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Justin Bowser, Chief Operations Officer at HTK
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Eric Favaloro, Business Unit Director, NYC at Comarch
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