The future of the c-store is in the mobile phone. This shouldn’t come as a big shock, as all aspects of life are now dominated by the devices in our hands, but when it comes to something as traditional as the c-store this transition can be terrifying, even as it opens up tremendous opportunities. Getting there means having a technology stack in place that not only enables mobile interactions, but also provides a way to collect and use the data necessary to create a better and more profitable customer journey. At the most basic it means having both a mobile-enabled online ordering technology along with a capable loyalty platform.
The COVID pandemic sped up a process that was already well underway. Younger generations had been using their phones to order food and other retail products online, but now the rest of the market has embraced this and accelerated the movement toward a mobile-first community. Still, when the pandemic started, some c-stores were unprepared and many small to medium-sized retailers found themselves rushing to develop online ordering or mobile payment technology to connect with their customers in this way. As people venture back out, we are seeing some movement back to more physical shopping experiences, the phone isn’t going away.
The challenge for c-stores is whether customers order through a third-party app like DoorDash or GrubHub, or through a first-party ordering system owned by the brand. Each customer path has its advantages, but play different roles. A third-party app is great for driving new customers, that’s why they charge such a premium, but they get in the way of the customer experience. The third-party owns that customer data, including buying patterns, preferences and contact information.
A first-party ordering platform that connects directly into the POS provides c-stores much more control over experiential details like menu presentation and pricing, while also enabling the brand to own the customer data that can help enhance the overall experience. By combining the ordering platform with a capable loyalty platform, the brand can create a truly engaging experience that keeps customers coming back and spending more with each visit.
As an example, if you know that a customer regularly purchases fountain drinks, then you want to use that information to promote deals that will drive their behavior, whether that’s through an app, email, coupons, or even at the pump. The only way for that to happen seamlessly is to have both systems working together.
These experiences don’t stop at the phone, and while third-party services focus on delivery, first-party ordering opens up other possibilities, like scan-and-pay shopping, curbside pickup, and even food delivery at the pump.
It all starts with making the right decision up front, which means investing in the technology that can give the customer the mobile experience they want, while keeping them coming back to the same stores they’ve always loved.