NATIONAL REPORT — To anyone plugged into the foodservice side of the convenience store industry, it's no surprise that fresh is a requirement for retailers who want to make a major play for the dollars of hungry Americans. And of course, the ability to make a fast purchase has always been an intrinsic part of the c-store shopping experience.
Together, though, fast and fresh are more than just adjectives. Combined, they represent an increasingly important dining occasion for c-stores, as well as their competitors.
The fast and fresh dining occasion can take place during any daypart and incorporate a wide variety of food types, appealing to consumers who are hungry and starved for time, but don’t want to sacrifice quality for a speedy meal.
One cannot talk about owning the fast and fresh dining occasion without addressing the role that technology is now playing, particularly in mobile ordering and on-demand delivery.
Some industry insiders believe mobile ordering is the most important step to take to be a serious contender in today’s rapidly evolving foodservice industry. Mobile ordering can facilitate in-store pickup, curbside pickup or delivery. The key is to give consumers the option to order what they want from wherever they are — extending convenience as far as it can go.
While in-store pickup is the simplest option for c-stores, adding it means operators still have to answer some important questions: Should there be a separate pickup line for mobile orders? Is there a limit to how many mobile orders can be placed at one time to ensure that in-store customers won't be neglected? Do mobile orders require digital payment, or can customers place an order and then pay cash upon pickup?
There are no one-size-fit-all answers for these questions; the answer to each one depends on store size, location, staffing levels, and other factors. Experts recommend retailers think through potential best- and worst-case scenarios to determine what will work for them.
It might be tempting to only change a little at a time when it comes to mobile ordering, but Jessica Shelcusky, convenience store marketing specialist for Paytronix Inc., is a proponent of integrating mobile ordering with marketing elements such as coupons, gift card redemption and loyalty programs in order to reduce friction for customers.
"You really want to be seamlessly integrated to have the best experience for your customers," she said.
The decision to deliver is a bit more challenging, as offering delivery service means c-stores must dedicate employees to it or partner with a third party. Still, Shelcusky believes it merits serious consideration since delivery is a rising tide in the foodservice world that shows no sign of subsiding. "It's continuing to grow and grow," she said.
Practical considerations for delivery include selecting packaging that will keep the food at the optimal temperature and quality upon delivery, which can be more challenging as some regions are pushing back on the use of plastic bags, Styrofoam and like items.
C-stores should also have a plan in place should something goes wrong with a third-party delivery. Eighty-two percent of customers blame the original restaurant in such cases, not the driver or the ordering app. Retailers should be ready to replace or refund the order, even if the fault is with the delivery provider, in order to maintain customer goodwill.
Also in the digital realm, frictionless checkout is yet another way c-store retailers can keep things fast and fresh. Amazon Go first made headlines for its proprietary technology that lets customers walk out with their purchases without ever having to interact with a cashier, but other options exist that similarly remove friction from the purchase process.
In particular, Skip Checkout is making significant inroads in the convenience channel. The service, which was first adopted chainwide by Enmarket, is a mobile-based application that lets customers scan their purchases and pay from their phone using the Skip mobile app. Cashier interaction is limited to a quick check of the phone on the customer’s way out. Security features alert store employees when a Skip customer enters the store.
Along with Enmarket, c-store chains such as High's and Cruizers have implemented the Skip Checkout program. Kwik Chek is currently testing Skip at select stores and plans to roll it out to the rest of the chain once it is fully integrated with the retailer’s loyalty host.
Demand for frictionless checkout, contactless ordering and other digital initiatives is only expected to rise in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing measures are likely to have the long-term side effect of making consumers more comfortable with incorporating technology into their food and beverage ordering habits.