NATIONAL REPORT — The pursuit of frictionless convenience from the pump to the store took off in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is still a goal of many convenience stores, whether it's self-checkout, line-busting capabilities, kiosk and online ordering, or mobile payment at the pump. There's also been a focus on streamlining operations and doing more with less as labor struggles continue. All of the above are top of mind for retailers as they begin 2024.
"With high inflation and labor shortages, c-stores are leveraging kiosk solutions, self-ordering for food, self-checkout and digital menuboards to automate the customer experience," Tim Tang, director of enterprise solutions at Hughes Network Systems, based in Germantown, Md., told Convenience Store News. "Labor shortage is also driving a lot of innovation with the thought, 'If I can't get more people to run the store, what technology can help?'"
At Curby's Express Market, which operates three locations in Lubbock, Texas, the retailer implemented line-busting capabilities with a tablet, having employees take orders in the drive-thru line for made-to-order food and beverage items. This integrates with the company's NCR Radiant point-of-sale system and then inside the store, Curby's offers self-checkout from NCR as well.
"Customers can walk in the store, order pizza or a made-to-order energy drink, and get a ticket with a barcode. Then, they can shop on the grocery side of the store and go to the self-checkout and simply scan the ticket to pay for everything together," said Tony Sparks, head of Customer Wow! at Curby's. "It allows the customer to experience a seamless and frictionless process to order their food, get their items and check out without having to interact with a human being."
Bp America has also spent the last year creating technology to enable a frictionless and simplified experience for its customers, whether they are visiting a bp Amoco, ampm or Thorntons location. The company worked on building the base technology and data systems for one mobile platform that includes loyalty, fuel payment and more, with plans to expand upon it to create a personalized experience for customers starting in 2024.
[Read more: bp Is on a Mission to be Customer Obsessed]
"In 2023, we worked on building the base layer and data layer, and they are in pilot," said Greg Franks, senior vice president of mobility and convenience at bp America, based in Warrenville, Ill. "It's an all-in-one ecosystem that will allow customers to experience all of our products seamlessly. Today, there is three separate experiences — ampm, bp Amoco and Thorntons — and we will now be able to bring them all together into one app and platform."
Priorities for 2024
Many c-store retailers are building on the technology they created and implemented in the past year or two and looking to scale and enhance it in 2024 — all with the goal of boosting the customer experience, making it easier and more convenient, and streamlining operations in the process.
"Consumers are changing faster than ever," said Franks. "They want to take control of their experience in terms of how and where they want it, and frictionless and omnichannel is going to continue going forward."
At Curby's, for those placing drive-thru orders, the retailer eventually wants to have the runner wear a body camera so that the customer can watch and guide them to the correct item, if needed, said Sparks.
"If someone knows they got a Monster beverage last time, but doesn't remember which one, they can see inside the store and pick," he explained. "We build everything in the store with the thought of how can we make it faster — from foodservice equipment to tablets."
With so many convenience stores trying to improve their foodservice sales — not only because it's a high-margin category but also because customers are looking for quality food options — focusing on operational technology and customer convenience in this area will continue to be top of mind.
"If a c-store chain is not trying to improve technology around the food and beverage side of the business, then they are not really in the food and beverage business," Sparks said, noting that in 2024, Curby's will focus on getting applications that support and manage its foodservice, including an inventory management system to better manage inventory and keep costs low. It will also be looking into labor management tools that suit a quick-service restaurant (QSR) environment.
"We have 60 percent of our sales in food and beverage, so we are more a QSR than a traditional c-store, and need to fill where we have deficits in the technology to support that business," he said.
All aspects of digital communication and digital interaction continue to grow in importance as well, as consumers are more on the go than ever before. The c-store industry today is moving more and more into digital and mobile technology, whether through an app-based loyalty program, mobile marketing or paying at the pump through an app.
"The business depends on digital and as it becomes more dependent, it will grow beyond what a chain has in place, so they must continue to evolve, and cybersecurity will become more important," Tang said.
In 2023, bp built the structure of its new backend ecosystem that includes a new mobile app the company is getting ready to scale starting in 2024. The company is also investing in "modern customer relationship management tools," so it can start personalizing offers to customers and even personalizing their experience depending on the brand they visit within the bp portfolio.
"We want to know what the guest wants before the guest realizes they want it, and we want it to be seamless in a way that surprises and delights," Franks said. "We are focused on getting the mobile experience optimized and scaling the technology, and then we will focus on scaling the customers in our program."
Whether a customer is on the road at one of bp's locations or interacting online, the goal is to have a technology platform that enables the retailer to change as customers' needs change.
"We are also enabling pay-by-plate where customers can drive up, have their license plate recognized, put gas in the car and drive away," Franks said.
Additionally, for bp jobbers, the company will be focusing this year on retail operating systems, including self-checkout, automated replenishment, integrated safes and workforce management.
2024 & Beyond
Artificial intelligence (AI) and the use of it in c-store technology is something every operator should be watching, especially for its ability to predict and forecast. While there are AI technologies available today, this area is expected to grow even more in the future.
[Read more: Convenience Think Tank Finds AI Is 'All About Data Integrity']
"You can't go an hour of the day without someone talking about AI," said Sparks. "The holy grail is predictive technologies, and I think where it will play a major role is in loyalty where the technology will understand what a customer wants in the future. If you are a director of loyalty, you are going to want to know what your customer is going to want in the next three months. You can't do that yet today."
AI is "quickly maturing," according to Tang. In addition to predicting what a customer wants, it will be helpful in allowing c-stores to respond and identify issues with customers and fix any issues before they even happen, he noted.
"AI can ingest large amounts of data and extract patterns that can be corrected before they become a problem," Tang said.
Self-checkout options will also continue to evolve, with camera technology making checkout even faster than scanning items. Although there is a "high level of adoption" with it, there is still room for improvement, according to Franks.
"I don't think the end of the story has been written yet with it," he said.