Why Aren't You On Facebook Yet?

C-store retailers like Stewarts Shops are active online and reaping the rewards

With 60 percent of consumers following at least one brand via social media, c-store operators who don't log in and post are missing a huge, cost effective marketing opportunity.

A recent survey of more than 15,000 Americans and Canadians by Empathica Inc. found consumers are very willing to follow brands online and use Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about favored retailers and products. One in three respondents said they followed through on a friend's recommendation received through social media, and a full one-quarter of Americans (and 17 percent of Canadians) reported recommending a brand, product or service to a friend via social media within the last three months.

However, few c-store operators are taking advantage of the media's growing influence. “C-store operators can be overwhelmed just running the business, and social media is running so fast that sometimes it may feel like by the time you get your hands on it, it has moved on,” said Gary Edwards executive vice president of client services for Empathica, based in Mississauga, Ontario, with offices in Birmingham, England and Alpharetta, Ga. “But I drive two SUVs and drink a lot of coffee. I'm a person my local convenience store should get to know. I don't want a retailer inundating me with information, but if something sparked my interest on Facebook and made me smile, it could reinforce my c-store habit, and I'm not going to go somewhere else.”

Many industry players like Stewart's Shops have an active Facebook presence, while many others have fan pages they don't control. But to truly leverage social media, retailers need to be very active online and promotion minded. Forty percent of survey respondents report they follow a brand on Facebook to search for coupons or promotions, while 30 percent desire additional information.

Stewart's Shops is reaching out to customers with a neighborly, promotional presence on Facebook, changing its status more than once a day to keeping followers engaged. A typical status update, for instance, will list the Top 10 Stores Selling Deli Dogs in a Week or tell followers, “Muffins are just $1.19 this week when you purchase any coffee, iced coffee or 16-ounce or 20-ounce refresher!” A recent post noted, “The gas price drops 5 cents at 7 this morning at our Warrensburg shop as we kick off a day of grand opening specials! The Point 100.3 will be there from 11 a.m. -1 p.m. At noon we cut the ribbon and there is even going to be a pint ice cream eating contest. Are you up for that?”

Other posts address customer concerns, such as one that outlined why the price of gasoline was high, detailing the high price of crude, the actions of speculators and the 20-cent-per-gallon increase in Stewart's cost of gasoline over the last month.

The retailer also posts pictures and videos of employees, such as one with the message “Doreen, Linda and Shannon from our South Street shop in Mechanicville are ready for the 2 quart ice cream sale this week!”

Customers post product reviews and details about recent visits. Customer complaints are left on the page and publically addressed.

But few c-store operators have been as successful as Stewart's Shops adopting a social media strategy. One reason: The effective use of social media requires the marketing and operations departments work together closely.

Traditionally, c-store operators approach marketing by creating a budget, planning on ways to use that budget, then creating a promotional activities that fall from that plan, Edwards noted. “Social media doesn't really lend itself to that kind of planning,” he said. “It's not a top-down activity. It's a bottom-up activity.”

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