Leading C-store Technology Executives Talk Top Challenges
NATIONAL REPORT — In the past year, Family Express Corp. has moved the needle on the technology front. Recent achievements at the Valparaiso, Ind.-based convenience store chain include the implementation of frictionless technology across its network, and the launch of a custom loyalty app that integrates multiple vendors into one platform.
It is for these advancements, among others, that Convenience Store News honored Gus Olympidis, founder and CEO of Family Express, as its 2020 Technology Leader of the Year. Olympidis recently accepted his award during day two of CSNews' three-part Virtual Technology Leadership Series.
"This is a nice honor for the teams that are currently engaged in two massive rollouts throughout our chain facilitating advanced technology — our bean-to-cup program and baptizing our pumps into the era of smart pumps," Olympidis said.
During a fireside chat with CSNews Editorial Director Don Longo, Olympidis said Family Express does not start its day defining itself as a tech leader as much as the company starts its day thinking of problems impacting customers and ways to facilitate solutions.
"Very often, but not always, technology is the way you facilitate a solution that ultimately improves the experience for your customers and we, over the years as a small, independent company, have married with the idea that technology investment is necessary in order to pave the way for a better future for our company," he explained.
While frictionless is a leading trend in the c-store industry right now, Olympidis says there is "a holistic misunderstanding of the essence of frictionless that is slowly going away as retailers begin to understand that all technology is not frictionless."
According to the industry veteran, there are some technologies that cause friction, and all reduction of friction does not necessitate technological solutions.
On the topic of loyalty, Olympidis noted that a new standard is emerging. "The consumer is expecting to go to as few places as possible in order to meet their needs," he pointed out. "The consumer does not want to access a half a dozen apps in order to complete a transaction at the convenience store of their choice."
The recent COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted the need — and desire — for limiting touch, according to the chief executive. "Enabling technologies that facilitate less friction and less touch really affects the consumer in a profound way," he said. "Everything that we are doing, in terms of technology, is designed today to facilitate not just the removal of friction, but also unnecessary touch."
At Family Express, Olympidis explained that the company's culture is rooted in the belief that "we are students for life."
"Consumers' expectations change over time — some very quickly — and you need to be on your toes to capture those changes early on, so you are not left behind," he said.
Going forward, he said the challenge always is to try to define the things you don’t know. "We are consumed by solving problems that we know we have, but very often the problem that is prevalent is the one that goes unnoticed," Olympidis said, adding that there are always opportunities out there "that we are not smart enough to detect."
Family Express is not alone in trying to stay ahead of consumers' changing expectations.
Day two of CSNews' Virtual Technology Leadership Series, which was sponsored by NCR Corp. and Franke Coffee Systems, also included a retailer panel discussion with Eric Jones, chief innovation officer for Savannah, Ga.-based Parker's; Jeremie Myhren, chief information officer for Rockford, Ill.-based Road Ranger; Howard Hyche, vice president, technology for Mount Pleasant, S.C.-based Refuel Operating Co.; John Notte, vice president of sales for Franke Coffee Systems; and Steve O'Toole, vice president at NCR.
According to Myhren, the c-store industry as a whole is up against two big challenges that are pandemic-related: regulatory changes and evolving customer demands.
"Trying to synthesize and react to those regulatory changes and customer demands … changing the ways we have done things for a long time will be the big challenge for us," Myhren said, describing it as both an operational challenge and a technology challenge.
At Parker's, Jones said pandemic-related challenges have included major labor shortages, coin shortages, product shortages, as well as regulatory concerns.
"If I learned anything this year, [it's that] whatever I think is going to be our biggest challenge, I am probably wrong," he acknowledged.
"The major challenge is going to be balancing all the competing priorities while we try to allow ourselves some capacity to pivot when these challenges come our way that we have no way of seeing or forecasting," Jones added. "For us, it's being disciplined and going after the right technologies and the right initiatives that meet customer expectations, but not chasing everything so that we do have the ability to pivot when we need to."
Offering the supplier perspective, O'Toole agreed that the topic of change and changing consumer expectations is at the top of the list for the c-store industry these days.
"Factor in that most convenience and fuel retailers have a monolithic system that doesn’t actually allow innovation and change to be delivered quickly, that puts the retailer in a real bind," O'Toole said. "I think the balance is to find a way to invest — for compliance, for ease of maintenance — to reduce the cost of ownership and also allow for innovation."
Notte pointed out that for the supplier community, responding to the needs of the retailer, who is reacting to the needs of the consumer, is critical and a challenge that will continue.
To view on-demand replays of the Virtual Technology Leadership Series, click here.