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Convenience Retailers Deploy a Mix of Techniques to Attract Fuel-Only Customers

Store appearance, lighting, marketing technology and personalized offers are helping c-stores draw customers inside to buy higher-margin items.
A convenience store and gas station lit up at night

NATIONAL REPORT — For years, convenience store operators have been focused on getting gas-only customers to come into the c-store where the high-margin items are found. Today, many have broadened their efforts to increase the number of customers coming onto the lot as well, and in the expanding electric vehicle (EV) charging market, this is yet another customer available to bring to the lot and convert to an in-store shopper.

The key to conversion often comes down to first, knowing your brand and your customers and then, making sure you are effectively communicating what you have to offer them.

"First and foremost, retailers have to know what makes the experience with their brand different, and how they surprise and delight to engage customers," said Kay Segal, founding partner of Business Accelerator Team, a Phoenix-based consultancy. "After that, is your store assortment appropriate for the customer you are trying to bring in, and how are you communicating that by marketing with the intent of what you want the customer to do?"

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In today's digital world, it's important to engage people how and when they want to be engaged, and to make the engagement personal because that is what consumers expect now, according to David Poulnot, vice president of multivertical sales at digital marketplace Upside, based in Washington, D.C. Consumers are used to highly personalized and "curated experiences" with the internet and are expecting that in the brick-and-mortar world as well, he noted.

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"Pumptoppers and television screens at the pump are static and one size fits all, so retailers need to think of ways to also move past that and capture customers' attention in the moment, and in a way that is relevant to them," Poulnot said.

While technology is key to marketing in today's world, retailers must also remember the basics, according to Peter Rasmussen, CEO and founder of Convenience and Energy Advisors, a consulting firm based in St. Petersburg, Fla. This includes a welcoming and inviting store, clean bathrooms and proper lighting.

"When you think about what drives you to a destination, you could have video at the pump or the right POP [point of purchase], but is your location consistently clean and attractive?" he posed. "Clean bathrooms matter because that will get people into the store."

Marketing & Personalization

New marketing technology allows c-stores to personalize offers, especially through loyalty programs that track customers' past purchases. Pairing this with geofencing technology to target customers who are near the store or on the forecourt can generate a lift in traffic to the store.

"Consumers want connection, and it's not just an AI [artificial intelligence] driven personalized offer that is not really personalized where they get the same offer three days in row for something they just bought. You can't completely take human interaction out of the equation," said Segal.

When it comes to a loyalty program, there needs to be a good initial offer to get people to sign up and then, from that point on, a c-store can start to personalize and target a customer with offers based on what they typically purchase using some elements of AI, said Rasmussen.

For instance, an offer such as 10 cents off gas based on when the consumer was there last and would typically need fuel again.

A Circle K location on Upside

Marketing shouldn't solely focus on loyalty members, though. C-store operators need to think beyond that and look at a total digital strategy, even utilizing social media, according to Segal, noting that the retailers with the best social media platforms are not only posting what is on promotion, but also looking to create a community through events and more.

Retailers also need to look at consumers who are not yet shopping their stores or pulling onto their lot for fuel so that they can expand their reach. Technology can play a role here as well. There are mobile apps such as Upside — and Mudflap in the truck stop market — that are designed to drive people to a location, Rasmussen pointed out.

"In many cases, a customer's experience is beginning prior to visiting a location and starts with why they want to stop there," he said, explaining that mobile apps like Upside offer personalized promotions aimed at driving new customers to a store. C-store retailers including Terrible Herbst Oil Co., Circle K Stores Inc. and Road Ranger partner with Upside in this way.

"Convenience stores need to continually focus on ways in which to acquire new customers and think about how to grow the business long-term. That comes with investing in ways to personalize the experience to consumers, both at the pump and before they get to the stores," said Poulnot.

Making an Impression

Even with a mobile app, digital coupons, personalized offers and geofencing, c-store operators cannot forget the basics of attracting a customer to their location and that encompasses the overall look and feel of the store, including lighting, clear windows, clean restrooms, etc.

"The forecourt needs to look good, and the store needs to be bright and clean," Segal advised. "A lot of new store designs are featuring bigger glass in the front of the store to essentially bring the store out to the forecourt."

The look of a location during the day is just as important as at night. Lighting can make a significant difference in portraying a c-store as safe and inviting to consumers.

Robin Hood, executive vice president at Cincinnati-based LSI Industries Inc., recommends retailers do a site audit at night, taking photographs from a variety of angles and distances to understand how the site is perceived by a customer and uncover where they can improve.

"Safety and security are factors for the overall experience, especially at night. Also, if it's dark outside a store, it can give the impression that it's dirty, which can carry over to the daytime and overall cleanliness and perception — especially with c-stores offering fresh food," Hood noted.

LSI Industries provides outdoor lighting that directs light from the canopy into the store. The supplier has seen a lift in in-store sales and traffic among those that have incorporated this "forward throw lighting," along with archer lighting that shines around the perimeter of the store.

Dale Lovejoy, director of petroleum lighting as LSI Industries, pointed out that once on a site, what is influencing customers to go inside the store, especially at night, is illumination paired with some type of advertising or graphics.

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