Art Sebastian, vice president, digital, Casey's General Stores Inc.
NATIONAL REPORT — Technology is no longer an afterthought in the convenience store space. Consumers are demanding more and if one retailer fails to meet their needs, they will simply choose another retailer that does.
To find out what it takes to embark on a digital journey, Convenience Store News' 2020 Virtual Technology Leadership Series is bringing together c-store tech leaders to share best practices and discuss the future technology needs of the industry.
Day one of the three-part series kicked off Oct. 1 with a fireside chat between CSNews Editorial Director Don Longo and Art Sebastian, vice president, digital, at Casey's General Stores Inc. The chat was followed by a retailer panel discussion comprised of Sebastian; Jeremie Myhren, chief information officer for Rockford, Ill.-based Road Ranger; Howard Hyche, vice president, technology, at Mount Pleasant, S.C.-based Refuel Operating Co.; and Mike Welsh, chief creative officer at New York-based Mobiquity, sponsor of the series.
DEEPening the Guest Relationship
"When I think about it more broadly, our objective at Casey's is to create a much more modern and contemporary business model essentially to deepen the relationship with our guests," Sebastian told Longo during the fireside chat.
The first step to meeting that objective, according to Sebastian, was launching a digital guest strategy at Casey's. That entailed:
Implementing its first customer relationship management (CRM) platform;
Launching a mobile website;
Going live with a native mobile app; and
Launching a loyalty program, Casey's Rewards.
"All of this is very important because consumers really want to engage with retailers and restaurants in a much more digital manner, and they want to have choices in how they engage," he explained. "It's really important to us, and I think the understatement of the year is 'digital is the new normal.'"
Sebastian joined Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey's two years ago. At the time, the company had a 50-year presence in the convenience channel and a portfolio of roughly 2,200 convenience stores across 16 states — with about half of those stores in small towns.
"Casey's had been really successful, but we were behind in digital," he recalled, noting that the retailer had partnered with Deloitte Digital to shape its digital transformation just prior to him coming onboard.
"I never hit the ground running so fast as I did when I joined Casey's," he added.
Along its digital transformation journey, Casey's took several key steps, including organizing its guest data in one area. Another step was implementing a marketing automation tool to communicate the right messages to its guests.
"There was a lot going on when I first joined. Looking back, it was an exciting time, but it hasn't slowed down either," Sebastian said.
The journey has come with some challenges. "Anytime you are standing up a new technology stack, there is a lot of planning that needs to go into that," he said.
In addition to the behind-the-scenes integration work, Casey's spent a lot of time talking with its customers to understand what they wanted and needed from the retailer, and what experiences and features would resonate the most.
Moving forward, Sebastian said Casey's will continue to put more emphasis on its customers, so guest insights and analytics from its loyalty program will be an area of focus in the near future. The retailer will also concentrate on shifting from mass marketing to targeted marketing.
"In the digital space, there is so much to get done. Things are changing so rapidly," Sebastian said.
Technology moves to the forefront
Like Casey's, many c-store retailers have put technology initiatives high on their agendas this year as the nation grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.
At Refuel, integrating technology systems following the company's acquisition of the Indianola, Miss.-based Double Quick convenience store chain has been the top priority, according to Hyche.
At Road Ranger, the retailer channeled the majority of its energy at the beginning of the pandemic into tech operations — including getting employees up and running remotely. The company then quickly switched over to tech innovation, including initiatives such as third-party delivery, according to Myhren. At the same time, Road Ranger was in the final stages of converting its point-of-sale systems.
Myhren pointed out that there are two sides of tech: operations and innovation. "It's the same competency, but sometimes it's really two competing interests," he said.
When embarking on a digital transformation journey, Welsh of Mobiquity advised that retailers should always put themselves in their customers' place.
"You have about 90 seconds of a transaction with an average order value of $7. That's the whole brand experience the person is going to have, so you have to balance what experience you want to create for someone in that 90-second window and the effects on operations and labor — because if you add time, you add labor costs and across a network of stores, that could be millions of dollars a year," he said.
Sebastian echoed that retailers should listen to their customers and seek them out to understand what motivates them and what they want.
"We are all going to be building digital experiences; the industry has really risen to the occasion and [we've] stepped up our games," he said. "We're all investing in tech, but I think the key for the industry is not doing tech for tech's sake, but focusing on what's most important for your customer and building around that."
Adding to that, Myhren advised fellow retailers to start with a brand identity and a desired customer value proposition. "Our No. 1 value proposition has always been convenience, but we're more than that and we can be more than that," he explained. "Make sure you've got those things front of mind and understood, and don’t start building anything or buying anything from anybody until you know those two things. Let that be your roadmap for how you do it."
In these challenging times, partnerships are also increasingly important. Hyche said Refuel has focused on making sure its partners can help the company quickly adapt.
"These days, we need to do everything faster than we have done it in the past, so we need partners that are agile and have the bandwidth to do these projects," he said. "We've tried to focus on that, stay in touch with our technology partners, and find out where the roadmap is and where we fit on that roadmap."
To view day 1 of the CSNews Virtual Technology Leadership Series on demand, click here.
The virtual event continues on Oct. 8 starting with the presentation of the 2020 CSNews Technology Leader of the Year award and a Q&A with this year's honoree, Gus Olympidis of Family Express, followed by a second retailer panel discussion. For more information and to register for part two of the event, click here.