NEW YORK — There is no arguing that technology and innovation go hand-and-hand with today's retail environment. However, at the center of it all is still the customer.
"It's easier than ever in 2019 to adopt technology; there is no shortage of the types of technology," Future Commerce podcast host Phillip Jackson explained during NRF 2019: Retail's Big Show. "But the more technology we put into place, the further away we get from the customer."
For Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc., connecting with the customer comes from being embedded in the community.
"There are community stores where they know everyone's names," shared Emily Sheetz, vice president of strategy development and execution for the convenience store chain. "...Our employees are having fun and it comes across the counter."
She explained how the retailer, with 600 convenience stores, reaches its customers during a "Systematic Satisfaction" session at the National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2019 show. Joining Sheetz on the panel, which Jackson moderated, were Marjolein Westerbeek, president of Rituals Cosmetics USA, and Dave Henderson, president of U.S. operations at CGI.
Sheetz acknowledges that the family-owned company has a hard sell: That you can get great food at a gas station.
The retailer starts with its gas offer to entice customers into the store and builds loyalty from there.
"The story of our brand and our offer is where we focus our messaging," she explained. "Being family owned and operated indirectly helps us connect with our customer."
Being family owned and operated also helps the convenience store retailer invest and plan for the long term.
To deliver its message that you can get great food at a gas station, Sheetz Inc. works with CGI, a global IT and business consulting services company.
"I cannot be an expert, so it's important to work with customers to connect their brand with their customers," CGI's Henderson said, calling it a mindful collaboration.
"It's a long-term partnership, understanding the brand and growing with them," he added.
As Sheetz pointed out, made-to-order foodservice has taken over the business in some markets, leading Sheetz Inc. and its food offering to become a destination. But made-to-order takes time and that must be balanced with the needs of the customer on the go.
"Technology is a key part of the experience," she said. "Our brand is all about fun. It's about getting people what they want, when they want it."
According to Henderson, it is easy for tech companies to get wrapped up in the technology. However, "we are much better when we understand what is the right thing to build," he said. "We have to be very attuned to the experiences in-store that our customers want to create."
If you focus on the human side, he noted, the technology will follow.
With customer expectations toward technology shifting, Sheetz told NRF Show attendees that it is better for a company to unveil a technology platform, learn from it and continue to improve it. Retailers no longer need to get it right the first time.
"There is so much innovation out there. You have to get into the game and just do it, if you want to play," she said.
Sheetz acknowledged her company is "lucky" because it introduced technology into its stores — notably its touchscreen kiosks for made-to-order food — in the 1990s. With that as a foundation, Sheetz Inc. had a platform to build upon.
"It helped develop our brand and our voice," she noted.
From the in-store ordering system, it was natural to move on to mobile and online ordering.
The biggest hurdle now? With roughly 600 stores, Sheetz Inc. is no longer "small and nimble," according to the VP. "We need to think about how we can keep the innovation going," she said.
NRF 2019: Retail's Big Show took place Jan. 13-15 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York.