Apps help consumers control engagement with a retailer before they enter the store.
NATIONAL REPORT — Whether it's mobile ordering, contactless shopping or fueling, mobile apps or mobile payments, it has become the norm for consumers to interact with retailers on the go. Convenience stores are stepping up to meet this expectation, while gaining access to data to drive visits, sales and more.
"At a broad level, the mobile phone is this powerful tool in the hands of the shopper and provides retailers with a connection point through all aspects of the shopping journey," Blake Weber, retail technology project manager at Atlanta-based Clarkston Consulting, told Convenience Store News. "Retailers that utilize mobile benefit by driving more customers into the store, driving repeat customers — especially through loyalty — [getting] better engagement and capturing data to provide a more personalized experience."
With so many ways to utilize the mobile phones that are in the hands of customers every day, the best place to start is with a mobile-first website since this is the first place many people turn to when searching for a brand online, according to Mike Templeton, director of digital experience for Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey's General Stores Inc., operator of more than 2,400 convenience stores in 16 states.
"Then, for those who are more engaged with your brand, getting a dedicated mobile app into their hands should be a top priority," he said. "When your brand is a tap away — and they can control their experience with their loyalty program, the offers they like and the messaging they receive — that's true convenience for today's convenience channel consumers."
The goal of any retailer, especially convenience store operators, is to make the shopping experience easier and more convenient, and mobile phones can achieve this in a variety of ways. When designing and implementing a new mobile experience — whether it's a website, app or payment option — c-store retailers should ask themselves: "How will this mobile experience deliver a more convenient shopping experience?" advised Kevin D. Struthers, associate director of digital at W. Capra Consulting Group, based in Chicago. If there is no "clear and concise answer to that question," then the plan and design need to be revisited, he said.
"Convenience retailers need to understand that adjacent verticals like grocery, mass merchandise, dollar stores and drugstores are now competing for the same-day consumption customers, and QSR [quick-service restaurant] and coffee companies have also achieved high customer participation in mobile programs. Therefore, they must understand what consumers expect because of the mobile experience delivered in those verticals," Struthers explained, noting that the most popular offerings, measured by driving retention, are order ahead and personalized offers.
Consumers today are used to interacting with retailers and restaurants via mobile devices, be it placing an order, paying for products and services, or cashing in loyalty perks. In fact, thanks to mobile websites and apps, the interaction with a brand often starts before a person even gets to the store.
"Maybe someone is at home and wants to see what products are available and the pricing, or they can place an order for delivery or pickup, all from sitting on their couch at home," said Weber. "Then at the store, there is a variety of ways a mobile phone can come into play, whether it's mobile checkout to skip the line, contactless fueling, or interacting with an app to check a receipt or loyalty points."
Mobile ordering has been a driving factor for Casey's since the convenience store chain launched the modern version of its app in July 2019. As the fifth-largest pizza chain in the United States, the app allows Casey's customers to order foodservice along with "hundreds of other items" available for pickup, said Templeton, noting that orders placed within the app and on its website represent more than two-thirds of the chain's total pizza orders.
"Within the app, loyalty rewards members can also see their points balance, browse personalized offers, and see what is happening at their local store," Templeton continued. "Having the ability to control the entire app experience, including the features available, the technology integrations and how the app syncs with in-store interactions, is crucial to offering the personalized experience our guests crave."
Today's shoppers have come to expect both mobile ordering and mobile rewards, Weber echoed. "Mobile ordering especially is becoming the standard right now. It's commonplace to place an order from home or the car and then just go in the store to pick it up," he said.
On the rewards front, the data c-store retailers are able to gather from mobile interactions can help them take their loyalty programs to the next level and offer personalized rewards, along with deals and promotions — as Casey's is doing with its app.
"Consumers' expectations on personalized promotions are going way up, and most retailers are fairly far behind," Kevin Hart, senior vice president of fuel sales and new markets at Washington, D.C.-based Upside, told CSNews. Upside's technology helps millions of people get more purchasing power on the things they need, while tens of thousands of brick-and-mortar businesses earn measurable profit.
Hart explained that personalization starts at the front door, knowing who walked into the store and that they have not purchased a sandwich in two weeks, so a promotion to order one is sent. "That is becoming top of the list and those that fulfill it are the ones that will win this," he said.
With more and more convenience store retailers offering loyalty programs, mobile apps and even delivery services — so much so that it's becoming an expectation for common practice — the key will be to stand out, even amongst markets outside of convenience, according to Casey's Templeton. "The challenge ongoing will be the way in which these retailers use their offerings to differentiate their brand from others in the marketplace," he added.
In May 2023, the company refreshed its Casey's Rewards experience in its app to include a quick-redeem option for customers to easily choose rewards, and a lifetime savings tracker so that guests can view how much has been saved as a Casey's Rewards member. More than 95 percent of Casey's customers who use the app are also members of the loyalty program.
"We're excited to look for more ways the app can help put the guest in control of the experience, almost like a remote control for whatever they want," Templeton shared. "Our guests know what they want, where they want it, and how quickly they can get it — and that's what being a convenience retailer is all about."