Nonstop, Look & Listen

This article originally appeared in the CStore Decisions. CStore Decisions’ online content can be found here.

“Epic Convenience” was the title for my planned remarks for the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association (NECSEMA) annual expo, which I didn’t get to share because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But I was prepared to share the monumental changes we’ve seen with technologies in the Convenience/Petro industry. These times are truly epic — let’s look at what retailers and solution/service providers are doing ’round-the-clock just in the past few months that are impacting c-store tech.

Alternative POS Systems – Change will come along.

A year after talking with over a dozen point-of-sale solution providers who were hopeful of making an entry and disrupting the U.S. convenience/petro marketplace, none have emerged. They continue to struggle catching up the legacy vendors that have been providing the many fuel requirements of the industry. One subject matter expert told me that a POS vendor he worked for was lagging “They’re still trying to figure out how to deal with fleet, integrations with” car washes and price signs. A POS provider said, “Short answer here: We have not made any progress in supporting the petro market.” International POS providers also continue to work through “US-isms,” meeting tax, payment and government program requirements.

For POS vendors that have been around for some time, a few have announced new approaches — a cloud-based solution from one, while another is taking a virtualized platform approach. The cloud will bring capability to process customer transactions from many different touchpoints and integrate to a product catalog (more than a Price Book) for real-time item information. Leading retailers such as Pilot Flying J, Circle K and Wawa are moving various in-store application touchpoints into an in-store virtualized server environment through a new foundation without replacing existing hardware.

Cashierless Checkout – Experimentation that will likely help a few leading solutions to emerge.

Nick Peters, IT Director at Holmes Oil, shared his early experiences with a mobile app-based solution at the NACS Show back in October, commenting that once customers use it, they continue on using it, saying, “it’s sticky.” During my own visits to a couple of his Cruizers stores, I shared the awkwardness of picking up items and walking out without interacting with a store employee even though I had scanned and completed my order. They were working to be sure cashiers, who receive a message of a mobile-app shopper, interact in some way with the customer.

Denver-based Choice Market’s partnered with a solution provider for a frictionless checkout solution that uses artificial intelligence, computer vision and the internet of things to track purchases. Another Colorado-based retailer has gone even further — Russell’s Xpress typically does not have staff on duty throughout the day at locations in office buildings. At these locations customer-operated POS systems are being used.

7-Eleven is approaching the frictionless checkout experience on two fronts. It recently began to test a proprietary developed cashierless store concept at their headquarters building in Dallas after piloting the 7-Eleven Mobile Checkout mobile app feature in NYC last year.

Delivery – A way of living up to being ‘convenient.’

Foxtrot Market has changed up the store marketplace in Chicago and Dallas with a well-integrated go-to-market approach — brick and mortar urban locations, an ever-changing mobile app, and in-house delivery service. During a recent visit to one of their downtown Chicago stores, it was obvious from both foot traffic and the number of customers using the store as a meeting and workplace that people knew and liked the brand. Chief Marketing Officer Carla Dunham told me, though, that what I was seeing was only 50% of their business, the rest coming from mobile orders that would be delivered to customer’s offices and homes. The Foxtrot IT team has developed many of their own proprietary systems that are providing insights that are helping them unpack what convenience is and to forecast demand.

Recently, traditional c-store chains such as Casey’s, Circle K, Kwik Trip and Wawa, have announced delivery service expanded pilot tests or full market implementations using delivery platform service providers. Without brick and mortar locations and a delivery-only model, GoPuff has now expanded its 150-location business with six new locations from coast-to-coast that includes a wider delivery radius.

Innovation – Industry leaders are working to stay ahead by discovering new ways to meet business and consumer needs.

An employee-based hackathon that Pilot Flying J held resulted in an online communications portal and a trucker parking spot reservations app. Sheetz technology and innovation hub in Pittsburgh led by Emily Sheetz said the goal is “ … to create a business that puts the Sheetz as we know it today, out of business.” Northern California Loop Neighborhood Stores has implemented robotic solutions for salad making and forecourt safety.

Several chains have begun to explore the next energy horizon by installing electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. One of Nouria’s newest stores at Boston’s Logan Airport has Shell Recharge EV units installed signally fuel brand partnerships. Retailers across the country Alltown Express, Kum & Go and OnCue all are becoming energy, no longer petro, marketers. Jeff Bush at Savanah GA based Parker’s told my CStore Decisions colleague Tom Mulloy that EV chargers create “an opportunity to attract an audience that might not necessarily have a reason to stop at our stores…”

Loyalty – Successful loyalty programs need to keep evolving.

There have been several solution provider partnerships announced that are providing customers with added digital experiences. Customers at Shell-branded stations can now have a mobile payment experience with cents off per gallon fuel discounts at the pump and inside the store much like competitor ExxonMobil’s program provides as well. Enmarket recently became one of the first retailers to roll out a mobile-checkout platform that is integrated with their Enjoy Rewards program. Rutter’s Rewards introduced new app to their loyalty customers providing more personalization, VIP offers and no need for a card.

Payments – Here’s a tech area that clearly is in a non-stop mode.

Alternative Payments: In research, I recently completed on loyalty programs it was interesting to see the number of c-store reward programs that were based solely on customers enrolling in a private label debit (ACH) offer, where customers sign up to be able to pay through their checking accounts. And over the past few months, retailers such as Friendly Express, High’s, RaceTrac and Twice Daily have all launched new debit payment-based fuel discount reward programs, with some tied to a more traditional loyalty program. Pennsylvania-based GetGo’s debit program has mobile payment at the pump capabilities.

Fraud: As convenience/petro retailers prepare and implement the next round of EMV technology on the forecourt to support the card brand’s liability shift, some leading East Coast chains announced they were hit with breaches of their payment card processing systems impacting thousands, if not more, of customer transactions. Many retailers, as part of their EMV plans, are implementing new Managed Network Service Provider (MNSP) solutions that “provide a more secure remote support and software distribution process”, according to Mid-Atlantic petroleum distributor Ewing Oil. Skimming remains a problem throughout the U.S. – Weights and Measures in California’s Humbolt County contacted all local gas station owners, making them aware of the attempt and advising them, as all retailer should be doing, to inspect their retail fuel dispensers for anything out of the ordinary, and to review surveillance footage. Meanwhile, the U.S. Secret Service discovered last year a new skimmer that steals payment card data from near field communication (NFC) devices at gas pumps but reported that it was not operational — stay watchful.

Self-Checkout – Implementations advance as consumer choice and labor constraints grow.

Chains such as Big Red stores in Arkansas, Maplefields in Vermont and Royal Farms have implemented self-checkout as an alternative experience option for customers. These chains self-checkout systems are integrated into their existing POS systems but there are also turn-key, non-integrated solutions in the marketplace that may be a precursor to a more robust system down the road. It will be interesting to hear if customers have migrated to and continue using self-checkout as we emerge from the virus.

There’s even more – C-store/Petro retailers are certainly in a nonstop tech mode.

Look and listen, and you’ll see even additional effort being put into Artificial Intelligence (Exxon & “Alexa pay for gas”), Consumer Communications (Circle K and Speedway — fast and early leaders informing mobile app and loyalty members of COVID-19 plans), and On-demand Services (Booster, Filld, Spiffy — gas delivery and vehicle care). Many retailers are also looking and listening to what non-traditional competitors (Target, Amazon Go) and around the world operators (Marks & Spencer at Paddington Station with 16 self-checkouts, and Manna’s drone food delivery service in Ireland) are up to.

What has occurred in putting technology to use just in the last few weeks — accelerating order-ahead features in mobile apps, added curbside and delivery service, implementing contactless payments — as convenience retailers respond to the COVID-19 pandemic is epic unto itself. What’s next will be even more epic as retailer will certainly accelerate the use of data analytics to look and listen even more on this non-stop train.

Ed Collupy is an executive consultant at W. Capra Consulting Group. You can reach him at ecollupy@wcapra.com. Mr. Collupy has IT leadership and business team experience, providing strategic, operational and project leadership to retailers, emerging businesses and technology companies.