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The Online Advantage: Digital Strategies Boost Customer Loyalty

While c-store retailers have been slow to embrace digital marketing strategies, tools such as mobile apps, emails, text messages, websites and social media have become increasingly important for engaging customers and recruiting new ones, too.

“Using digital channels to connect with convenience store shoppers can help build loyalty and drive traffic,” said Chris Quam, consumer insight manager for General Mills Convenience & Foodservice, Minneapolis. “Convenience store shoppers receive information from other types of retailers, so they should be connecting with convenience stores as well.”

The Future Is Mobile

C-store-customer interactions can occur anytime, anywhere, thanks to the wide adoption of mobile applications. New York-based Nielsen, a global information and measurement company, reported that app usage in 2013 grew 115 percent, and tablet usage increased 141 percent since 2010. Moreover, Nielsen predicts that online consumer product goods in the United States next year will be 2.5 times greater than they were in 2010 ($32 billion vs. $12 billion).

Tony Chidiac, vice president of business development for OpenStore by Gas Buddy, Gaithersburg, Md., noted that mobile applications are the most commonly used marketing tools used by OpenStore’s more than 90 c-store customers.

“The mobile app is, by far, number one,” said Chidiac. “But whether it’s a mobile app, or social media or text messaging, whatever the c-store retailer decides to offer its customers must be value driven. The mobile app is the easiest way to do that. “

OpenStore, launched in 2009, provides c-store retailers with complete digital-marketing solutions that facilitate communication between c-store owners and customers using web technologies and custom branded mobile applications. The OpenStore dashboard can collect customer feedback, manage social media, and deliver mobile coupons and text messages all from one location.

“We’re giving the customers a multi-channel dashboard where they can go and have a one-stop shop to do everything they need to do from a marketing standpoint,” said Chidiac.

Digital Technology In Practice

Tiger Fuel Co. in Charlottesville, Va., recently launched a new website and mobile app for its The Markets store brand through a partnership with OpenStore that helps The Markets reward, promote, communicate with and engage customers.

"We have a pretty established social media presence, but this platform is really going to take us to the next level in terms of integrating our Return and Earn Loyalty Program and enabling us to better communicate with our customers via the mobile app,” explained Gordon Sutton, district manager of Tiger Fuel. 

Through the app, The Markets can send in-store deals directly to customers and promote its popular $1.99 gas sales. It can also showcase gourmet brands and engage customers through the interactive game "Hoo's on First," which was inspired by a local sports team. Players are rewarded with credits and exclusive coupons that can be redeemed in stores.

Similarly, when Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Redwood Oil Co. embraced OpenStore to introduce a new mobile app, individual store web pages, mobile coupons and a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, company president Julie Van Alyea noted that the new mobile strategy gave the company a way to differentiate its Redwood Market brand and promote its prepared foods offerings.

“This opportunity will give us the ability to connect with our consumers in a new way, as well as to better understand their changing needs into the future,” she said.  “The Redwood Market app will enhance our commitment to convenience and consumer loyalty, positioning us as a market leader in convenience retailing.”

Digital Acceleration Has Arrived

While it’s true that the c-store industry has taken its time to cross over into digital marketing compared with competing retail channels, Chidiac observed that significant change is occurring.

“In the past twelve months there has definitely been an upturn in the demand for mobile apps and retailers wanting to go digital,” he said. “Decisions are also being made much quicker. Our sales cycle has decreased dramatically and that’s because it’s become apparent that c-stores need this. I’ve had sales cycles take two to two-and-a-half years. Now they’re more like one to three months.”

Being able to communicate with existing customers and reach out to prospective new ones via multiple channels is one of the most important benefits the c-store industry’s transition to digital marketing delivers. After all, all of the digital marketing tools available are irrelevant if retailers don't find a way to let their customers know their stores have apps, web sites and a social media presence!

The best way to achieve this is through store-level engagement, meaning cashier involvement, Chidiac said. Something as simple as having cashiers pass out business cards encouraging customers to download their store’s free app in exchange for a free soft drink is a good way to start, he said.

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