ALTOONA, Pa. — Sheetz Inc. has long been known for its made-to-order (MTO) foodservice offerings — and along with it, ordering kiosks — but its innovation stream has moved beyond what has become standard in the industry to new technology spaces like digital currencies and subscription programs.
It is for this forward-thinking take on retail technology that Convenience Store News selected Altoona-based Sheetz as its 2022 Technology Leader of the Year. The convenience retailer operates more than 640 locations throughout Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio and North Carolina.
The annual award goes to a technology leader (individual or company) who not only contributes to the success of their organization, but also to the advancement and growth of the convenience store industry as a whole. Sheetz CEO Travis Sheetz accepted the company's award at this year's CSNews Technology Leadership Roundtable & Dinner, held Oct. 1 in Las Vegas.
The goal at Sheetz is to "put Sheetz as we know it out of business." What does that mean? Continuous evolution, according to Travis Sheetz.
"Anytime we build a new Sheetz store, it should make the other one down the street look old," he explained. "We want to outdo ourselves. We don’t want anyone else to; we want to be first to evolve our business."
There are a lot of factors that drive and influence that evolution. Notably, according to the chief executive, those factors include employees, customers and the supply chain.
"Technology is a great enabler to all those businesses we are in and the customers that we serve," he said. "We are very literal about not using technology for technology's sake, but using it for what it can do to make our business better."
On the operations side of the convenience channel, technology helps retailers with efficiencies and labor redistribution to focus employees on the more value-added parts of the business. As for consumer-facing solutions, technology helps with convenience.
"We are in the business of making people's daily lives easier. We are focused on that convenience-demanding customer, so there is a lot of digital, consumer-facing technology that really helps with that," he pointed out.
Additionally, technology helps with information. "The world is all about data," Travis Sheetz said. "Not only who has the most data, but who uses it the most effectively."
Philosophy on Technology
In a channel that has been slow to wrap its arms around technology, that piece of the puzzle is often left out of discussions until plans are in place. At Sheetz, information technology (IT) is part of the discussion, but not "forced," according to the CEO.
"When we are looking at something new — innovation in general — we ask the question: How can technology help us?" he explained. "There are very few things today where technology can't help you be better."
More to the point, technology does not just live in Sheetz's IT group. For example, the retailer's consumer digital and data teams, and its loyalty program, sit within the sales and marketing team.
"These are all highly technology-driven things. Technology is not just IT and because of that, it is always at that table," Travis Sheetz said. "Having them always at the table is extremely important. Any strategic initiative we have generally has an IT component to it."
Emily Sheetz, vice president of strategy and information technology, is focused on growing that group to be both a service group and a value-added group, he noted.
In late 2019, Sheetz opened a technology and innovation hub in Pittsburgh. The hub focuses on developing, testing and implementing what Sheetz calls "transformative products and services."
According to the chief executive, the hub is set up to look outside the Sheetz model, and identify holes in the marketplace and opportunities for the convenience retailer to do something different — add the competencies that Sheetz possesses to another business to create value.
Noting it is a "test, learn and fail group," he explained the innovation hub is working across a broad spectrum of industries, not just convenience.
There is also interest from both the innovation hub and the retailer's in-house innovation team in establishing a retail lab concept, according to Travis Sheetz, where the retailer would be able to test technology solutions in a retail format that could apply to a very different business or to Sheetz's current model.
"That sits in the middle of our incubator, long-term innovation and what we call our mid-range innovation in-house to make Sheetz as we know it today better," he said.
Even with all this going on, Sheetz is not standing still. One area of innovation the retailer is excited about is payments and the evolution of the POS. Noting the migration from credit card swipes to credit scans to Apple Pay, Travis Sheetz wonders what the future could bring.
When it comes to payment systems, a retailer needs to be "very nimble and flexible," he said, and this speaks to having the technology infrastructure.
"Who knows what people will be paying with; all you have to do is be able to identify yourself and you can make a payment," he said, adding that this could include biometrics. "It keeps evolving and the customer expectation keeps evolving — particularly the young people."