NATIONAL REPORT — Convenience store retailers were already testing the waters with mobile ordering and delivery, but when COVID-19 hit, it accelerated the existing trend and amplified its importance. What was once strictly about providing convenience is now also about providing safety.
Many consumers will stick to the habits they developed during the pandemic even after the danger has passed, because they've grown accustomed to the convenience and the new way of doing things, according to a recent Convenience Store News webinar entitled "Mobile Ordering: Stepping Up the Pace." This presentation was part two of a three-part webcast series sponsored by Paytronix Systems Inc.
"The pandemic won't last forever, but it will likely have a lasting impact on what consumers expect from c-stores and what level of convenience they are accustomed to," said presenter Kiera Blessing, content specialist at Paytronix, a provider of customer engagement solutions and loyalty programs to c-stores and restaurants.
Mobile ordering and digital options are not a temporary bandage during this health crisis, but rather wise investments in a brand's future, Blessing explained, noting that retail consultancy King-Casey predicts that more than half of c-store brands will offer digital ordering and delivery options by the year 2023.
Additionally, a recent study by RTI Research found that 30 percent of consumers have begun using contactless options since the start of the pandemic, and 70 percent of those newcomers expect to continue doing so in a post-COVID world.
Entering This New Digital World
Mobile payments currently come in three forms, all of which are expected to grow:
Mobile remote (in-app payment);
In-person tap to pay; and
Peer-to-peer payment (such as Venmo).
Millennials and members of Generation Z are extremely interested in new technology and show a high utilization of mobile payments. Among all consumers, takeout is popular, with 60 percent reporting that they order takeout at least once a week. All of this contributes to mobile ordering being a cultural shift and not just a temporary fad, according to Blessing.
C-store operators are advised pay attention to four key areas as they enter this new digital world:
Unlike restaurants, c-stores sell many products other than food, and it's very common that they offer both packaged grab-and-go and made-to-order food. This is a complicating factor for the development of a digital menu.
"Creating an online menu that's both easy to navigate and thorough can definitely be a challenge," Blessing said.
Many customers will be new to the experience of placing an online order at a c-store and view the experience as novel. As such, the harder it is for them to check out, the more likely they will abandon the experience completely.
Therefore, digital menus should be user friendly on mobile devices, as well as desktop/laptop computers. Retailers should make sure that customers can find exactly what they're looking for without spending a lot of time searching for it.
C-store operators need to consider many factors, such as: Will mobile app orders have a designated pickup place inside the store? Will a delivery system be available through a third party or executed in-house? When ordering consumer packaged goods, will items come from a separate location, as they do with companies like goPuff, or will a store employee shop the shelves?
While different retailers will have different answers to these questions, all operators need to figure out what makes the most sense for their business before diving in head-first.
"Think about how to have a coherent protocol to keep things running smoothly," Blessing said.
C-store retailers need to decide whether they will make cigarettes, alcohol and other items that require age verification available for digital ordering.
If so, they should work with a system provider that reminds customers that an ID will be necessary for pickup, as the last thing they want is for a customer to place an order and have their card charged only to forget to bring their ID to the store for pickup, Blessing noted.
Packaging is often an afterthought, but it is particularly important for food going out for delivery. Packaging should keep sauces and other liquids sealed tightly, while also allowing steam to escape to prevent sogginess. Food should also be packed so that it isn't crushed by a heavy item like a two-liter soda.
Building Basket Size
Blessing also discussed how retailers can still build basket size through impulse buys, despite being unable to tempt customers with snacks, candy and other items on their way to and from the cold vault in the back of the store.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence can be used to learn what sells together most frequently and then make recommendations to customers. For example, after someone orders a coffee, the system could suggest they add a bagel or a muffin.
However c-stores develop their digital ordering system, it will be the most useful if it is integrated with the brand's loyalty program. If it isn't, consumers will either opt out of mobile ordering in order to receive their loyalty rewards or they will choose mobile ordering but the brand will lose out on the valuable data associated with loyalty-program purchases.
"Loyalty is a huge insight to your customers' wants and needs," Blessing said. "We don't want those to be mutually exclusive experiences."
An on-demand replay of this webinar, "Mobile Ordering: Stepping Up the Pace," is available here.