AUSTIN, Texas — The Convenience Technology Vision Group (CTVG), a collaborative group under the Vision Group Network umbrella, has released its latest Vision Report entitled "Tech Trailblazing," which calls out multiple technological advances that will shape the convenience store landscape.
The COVID-19 pandemic propelled the convenience store channel forward in the direction of technology-supported customer experiences such as mobile ordering, self-checkout, curbside pickup and delivery. Fast forward to today, and there continues to be a push toward a digital transformation in retail that connects the digital experience with the more traditional shopping trip as consumers resume daily commutes and travel.
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In the latest CTVG Vision Report, group members discussed the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), technology to manage and incentivize the workforce, and data collection.
The Impact of AI
"AI has already made a huge impact and it has the potential to revolutionize, but it's important that we recognize the limitations of AI and understand that it is not a replacement for human intelligence," said Ed Collupy, CTVG advisor/facilitator and principal for Collupy Systems Solutions.
Where artificial intelligence can help is with back-office tasks, like inventory turns. According to Fikes Wholesale Chief Information Officer Lorne Brockway, AI could help employee-customer connections both by showing existing employees what they could do better and also by helping onboard new employees with customer engagement tactics.
CTVG members were quick to frame AI technology as a new, advanced tool but also simultaneously consider where high-tech in general may not be necessary.
While smart technology makes headlines, "there's still a lot of application for dumb technology," said Roy Strasburger, CEO of StrasGlobal and president of Compliance Safe. He noted the most basic technology can still make life easier and more efficient and eliminate mundane work.
Technology as it Relates to Shift Flexibility
Technology can help convenience retailers accomplish two technology-related labor goals: increase the available employee pool and add scheduling flexibility.
One very functional application of technology comes by way of the gig economy as retailers in all segments seek to add schedule flexibility in an attempt to combat labor shortages. Convenience store retailer Circle K, the global banner of Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., taps the gig economy with an app where workers sign in for shifts.
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"It's worked well for us because the reality is we are facing challenges with labor, and this gives us an additional group of workers that can work the different shifts for us and even segment it by tasks," said Janeth Falcon, vice president, North America technology for Circle K, adding that the app can even cite the skills needed to perform specific tasks.
In addition to filling labor holes, the app has also allowed greater store-level staffing flexibility, she noted.
Technology — particularly smartphone apps — have become so intuitive, it has upped the ante for nearly every tech interaction people have, the report stated. Robert Hampton, vice president, technology services and innovation for Jacksons Food Stores, compared this to the way he can choose players in fantasy football and how that model could someday work at the store level.
"I'm thinking of our frontline employees, why can't I just swap shifts with somebody because my kid has a thing to do or whatever, and why can't I just drag and drop the shifts on the schedule just like I can my lineup in fantasy football," he said.
Volatility in consumer behavior, in regard to how much personal information consumers are willing to share, has CTVG members questioning what the right amount of data is to collect in the quest for personalizing the shopping experience. Providing a phone number was once the breaking point for many consumers, but today it is commonplace and even a requirement for enrollment in many loyalty programs.
For younger people opting into a loyalty app today, apps have bled further into personal data requests than ever before. And, perhaps surprisingly, most younger generations seem to have a high level of comfort with fulfilling those requests and giving away personal information if they understand the benefits coming, according to Donnie Rhoads, director of business development, The Convenience Group LLC.
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"There's a lot of unknowns as to how far this could really go until a regulatory agency decides to step in," Rhoads said. "Or there are people out in the streets screaming, 'Give me my phone number back' or something. But we haven't gotten there yet."
Rhoads anticipates a pushback in the United States when it comes to what companies are allowed to collect as corporations and consumers alike navigate the thin line between data collection and curated personalized experiences.
Other technologies discussed by the CTVG in "Tech Trailblazers" include effective dashboarding, legacy technology, hyper-focused digital, electric vehicle technology and more.
The Convenience Technology Vision Group operates under the Vision Group Network (VGN), which was formed in 2020 and gathers the collective knowledge and ideas of its members for the purpose of sharing within the retail community. Other groups that fall under the VGN include the Convenience Leaders Vision Group, which was formed in 2022.
VGN reports are accessible here.