A busy salesman on the way to his next appointment pulls into a Spinx convenience store to fill up his tank. It’s almost 1 p.m. and he hasn’t stopped since his day began just before 9 a.m. While pumping fuel, he glances at the color monitor built into the gas pump. He looks closer at the message. It offers him a dollar off a club sandwich. All he has to do is press the right buttons on the side of the pump and the pump will print a coupon. The sandwich is ideal for a quick bite to go, so the salesman prints a coupon. After filling his car with gasoline, he goes inside the store and purchases his lunch.
Spinx has just communicated with a customer and the customer responded, but the retailer didn’t use a traditional form of advertising. The Greenville, S.C.-based chain has adopted the Applause Media System, an interactive technology that provides customers with information, promotions, advertisements and coupons at the fuel pump. Applause is a product of Gilbarco Veeder-Root and an extension of the company’s SMART Merchandising System.
With 67 stores in the Carolinas, Spinx began installing Applause Media Systems about a year ago. Eight stores currently have the technology. “Every new construction will have this system,” said Bryan Zeiger, a marketing specialist for the convenience store operator.
Because it takes approximately six minutes to fill a vehicle with gas, the customer is a captive audience at the fuel pumps. At Spinx, the 10-inch monitor begins communicating the moment the customer activates the pump. It will present information about the company’s c-stores and fuel offering—such as the many biofuel locations Spinx operates throughout the Southeast—and E-85, an ethanol-fuel mixture for approved flex fuel vehicles (FFVs) designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It also showcases unique product offerings and special promotions and distributes coupons on a store-by-store basis.
“Right now, we’re offering any size coffee or any size fountain drink for 99 cents,” Zeiger said of the coupons. “Some stores may offer a $5 car wash or $1 off a chef salad.”
At the present time, about 6% of all customers will engage the screen and print a coupon at the pump. “Now we’re working on tracking how many people print a coupon and then take it into the store and use it,” said Zeiger.
Other future enhancements include adding sound to the Applause system later this year and selling advertising to local businesses. “We don’t want to inundate the customer with messages because they’re there to pump gas,” Zeiger said. “But it does give them something to do while they pump.”
Public Service Announcements
At Bobby & Steve’s Auto World, an eight-store chain in Minnesota, one store—a freeway location—has been using the Applause Media System for approximately 18 months, and Jason Snyder, operating partner, believes it has been effective for driving fuel customers into the c-store.
“Over 70% of the people who print coupons use them,” Snyder said. “Of course, when it is 20-below zero outside, people throw the pump handle in the tank and jump back into the car.”
Currently, about 3% of Bobby & Steve’s customers engage the system during cold weather, but that number jumps to 8-9% when the weather is pleasant.
Because the retailer must educate the customer to use the system, Snyder said, the in-store speaker system frequently reminds customers to check at the pumps for coupons and special prices.
The store also uses the pump monitor to promote community events, such as a city garage sale. The announcements serve as a no-cost public service to the neighborhood and “people get used to checking it,” Snyder said.
Thanks to an Internet connection, the Applause Media System will soon allow customers to search Google’s local business listings by category, such as restaurant or florist, and find the closest locations in the area. Customers will then be able to print driving directions at the pump. Gilbarco officials said retailers who offer these tools will make themselves more valuable to customers and gain a competitive edge.
Both Spinx and Bobby & Steve’s Auto World plan to add that new service as soon as it becomes available.
Going forward, Snyder would like to see customers use the technology to order food while they pump gas and then pick up their orders inside the store when they finish filling their tanks. “It would be like having 16 drive-through windows, and customers could pay at the pump with their credit cards,” he said.
According to Snyder, the system is most valuable when managed correctly. “It is an intensive program,” he said. “You can set it up any way you want it, but you need to update it weekly if you want it to be successful. And couponing only works to get customers in the store. If you’re not on top of your game, you won’t get them to come back.”
Build Your Own Sandwich
Rutter’s Farm Stores, the 55-store chain with headquarters in York, Pa., installed its first Radiant touchscreen foodservice ordering system about three years ago. The customer places the order at the kiosk, and the information goes directly to a monitor in the kitchen where it is produced to the customer’s specifications.
“There was concern about how customers would accept it,” said Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice at Rutter’s. “To ensure customers were comfortable, for a while the stores continued to offer an order-taker as well.”
But customers adapted quickly to the new technology. “The time to order is now on the customer, and the customer’s perception of speed has improved,” Weiner said. “It clearly gives the customers all these options, enhances price value and let’s them build their own sandwich.”
Best of all, the investment has paid for itself, he added. “We were able to cut back or redirect labor, and that was part of the payback,” Weiner said.
Some day in the future, Weiner predicted that quick-service restaurants will allow customers to place their own orders using touchscreen technology. “That would speed it up dramatically,” he said of QSR service.
Touch and Go
The WoW! Super Station in Utica, Mich., is also using touchscreen technology on kiosks to better serve customers. WoW!, a division of Atlas Oil Co., opted to place the Touch-n-Buy kiosk near the sales counter close to the front door. Customers use it to purchase a wide range of prepaid cards and to make utility bill and car payments.
“In the beginning, they were a little gun shy because they weren’t used to self-service for those kinds of items,” general manager Tony Martin said of the store’s customers.
If successful, Atlas plans to roll the concept out to dozens of new stores. The company distributes fuel to upwards of 350 convenience stores, about 50 of which are company-owned and operated.
The interactive touchscreen, using either English or Spanish, allows customers to access gift cards, long distance and wireless calling cards and other products.
After selecting an item, the customer pays the cashier, who then prints the product on a thermal card printer. More importantly, the system allows the store to offer a variety of products without investing in or maintaining inventory, which is crucial considering that companies are looking to drive sales while reducing operating costs.
To let customers know about Touch-n-Buy, WoW! advertises the system using electronic message boards on the busy street corners outside the store and with signage at the fuel pumps.
Retail experts are predicting convenience store chains will continue to adopt new and better ways to communicate with customers using self-service technology. Suppliers like NCR and Fujitsu, for example, are pushing a wide range of touchscreen hardware and partnering with several different software providers to allow customers to place orders in a convenience store or foodservice environment without dealing with a human order-taker.
“Retailers want to provide increased levels of service to customers without incurring high labor costs associated with that service,” said Weiner, of Rutter’s Farm Stores. “One of the tricks with foodservice is to ensure that your labor is used wisely, and that should be in preparing the food, not interacting with customers. That is how you keep costs down and margins high.”
Because convenience store real estate is so valuable, the physical size of hardware is shrinking. Contemporary touchscreen kiosks are extremely compact compared to the earliest interactive equipment, such as ATMs. Today’s models can be placed on a wall or counter to save space. Transactional kiosks—those that accept and dispense cash—must be more substantial and require a pedestal, but some are as small as four square feet.
Retailers have just begun to see the many opportunities for incorporating interactive technology into their stores in order to communicate and manage the needs of customers. Technology providers continue searching for new ways to help them do that job. As a result, store operators can expect to see newer, more exciting and more convenient technologies introduced in coming years.
“Anything you can do to make your store a convenient one-stop shop, that will always appeal to customers,” Martin said.