Seeking a New Normal in the Age of COVID
NATIONAL REPORT — The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting everyone's lives, resulting in major changes to health and safety practices, the regular routines of home and family, and a major shift toward working virtually.
Even now, months after the coronavirus began to spread this spring, the adjustment process is complex and still ongoing, according to speakers during a recent education session held as part of NACS' Crack the Code Experience, a five-week digital event that is bringing together convenience store industry retailers and suppliers virtually in lieu of an in-person NACS Show this year.
Travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and personal concern have significantly affected personal mobility, resulting in declining visits to retail locations, parks, workplaces and more. Following a widespread drop in visits that affected most product categories in the spring, traffic levels are now trending toward pre-pandemic levels in most categories, but may be leveling off at lower levels than before, Sue Chan, associate director of retail petroleum at W. Capra Consulting Group, explained during the education session entitled "Adapting to the Covid-19 Disruption: Is There a 'New Normal?'"
Currently, consumers' greatest concerns are occupancy and safety, while their greatest desire is convenience, which often can be fulfilled by curbside or carryout service.
These behavior changes are reflected in vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which fell 41 percent between February and April for light-duty vehicles, including electric vehicles and rideshare applications, reported Don Frieden, CEO of P97 Networks, a provider of cloud-based mobile commerce. While VMT differed for urban and rural drivers due to their different work patterns, both saw a major decline in the spring.
Low demand has likewise affected the price of fuel; gas prices have only been this low three other times in the last 15 years. Additionally, for perhaps the first time, there was no summer driving season in 2020. Consumption of fuel has been flat since Labor Day.
Adapting to New Customer Behaviors
Mobile commerce has become extremely important in the age of COVID.
Across approximately 30,000 sites with mobile commerce capabilities, fuel gallons purchased on mobile platforms have nearly tripled since the spring shutdowns, according to Frieden. New users on the P97 mobile platform are also up nearly three times since the start of COVID-related business closures.
Although mobile technology is now a must-have for c-stores, legacy infrastructure has held many operators back from making needed changes. Technologies that c-store operators report they are unable to implement quickly enough in response to COVID-19 include:
- Mobile payment apps — 33%
- Home delivery — 31%
- Self-checkout — 29%
- Mobile point-of-sale tablets for checkout by store associate — 28%
- Mobile pay at the pump — 28%
"If used properly, mobile puts convenience on steroids," said Eli Mail, vice president of merchandising and store design for Parkland Corp., noting that the convenience store operator is "laser-focused" on the path to personalization.
The Calgary, Canada-based retailer observed its customers increasing their basket size and package size, as well as buying new product assortments, such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer to go with their bread, milk and eggs, and fewer single-serve products. In response, Parkland made what it views as "meaningful investments in meaningful customer connections" with a focus on loyalty enhancement and growth, mobile, omnichannel expansion, food and coffee, and store format.
"I think we can all agree 2020 has been a journey to adapting to new customer behaviors on fast-forward," Mail said.
Chad Kobayashi, director of retail technology at Maverik, agrees. The Salt Lake City-based convenience store chain, which has historically done well with grab-and-go food, reacted to the pandemic by expanding those offerings, along with trying a variety of new things such as take-home meal kits.
Additionally, adopting contactless technology now helps keep the chain's customers and employees safer, although Kobayashi acknowledged that it does require extra effort to properly sanitize the payment terminals and increase their uptime.
When discussing what the "new normal" means, the speakers echoed that ultimately, the new normal means being ready for whatever comes in this era of unpredictability.
No one can predict with certainty what will happen in the next three months or the next six months, noted Bulloch Technologies' Program and Strategy Director Dave de la Plante.
"The new normal is being ready for something you don't even know you need to be ready for," he remarked.
The NACS Crack the Code Experience continues through Dec. 4.