The latest technologies being used to manage c-store food programs—from touchscreens and POS ordering terminals to digital signage—are allowing marketers to enhance communications and streamline operations.
By Pat Pape, Contributing Editor.
A busy office worker steps up to the touchscreen terminal and gently presses a colored photo of a fresh deli sandwich. With a few more quick touches, the sandwich is customized with condiments, and the worker chooses a beverage, plus a cookie for dessert. The order is then sent directly to the foodservice area, where an employee begins putting it together. Within minutes, lunch is delivered. The office worker pays and is out the door.
This is a scene played out thousands of times each day in tech-savvy convenience stores across the country. Thanks to touchscreen ordering systems, those stores are getting time-crunched customers on their way faster than ever before—with more accurate orders and often unplanned purchases.
In 1995, Sheetz became the first U.S. c-store chain to feature touchscreen foodservice ordering. The company installed the system in a single store in its headquarter’s city, Altoona, Pa., and it was an immediate hit. Soon, touchscreens were rolled out to all Sheetz locations to help boost food sales and reduce order errors.
“Prior to that we’d allow our customers to use a paper form to fill out their (foodservice) orders,” said Stan Sheetz, president and CEO. Unfortunately, many people don’t write well—or read well. “Sometimes it was difficult for our employees to interpret the order. Touchscreen technology made it easier for the employees and easier for the customers.”
Thanks to the photos of menu items, Sheetz shoppers can look at the screens and visualize the offerings, making it easy for both non-reading preschoolers and non-English speakers to easily place an order. “Having images takes the confusion out of it,” Sheetz said. “A few customers are a little fearful of the technology, but once an employee shows them how to use it, they catch on very quickly. It’s very intuitive.”
Similarly, Rutter’s Farm Stores, headquartered in York, Pa., made touchscreen ordering part of its foodservice program four years ago and currently has the system in 38 of the chain’s 56 locations. “It’s definitely had a positive effect on labor,” Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice for Rutter’s, said of the system.
Rutter’s customers create their own sandwiches, snacks and meals by adding, changing and combining offerings. “Burger King was right when they said, ‘Have it your way.’ People really do like it their way,” Weiner said. “The touchscreen optimizes that. It lets people make it their way.”
Weiner has seen customers order unexpected and not-always-appealing combinations using the touchscreen. He recalls watching a 30-something, suit-clad businessman select a basic ham-and-cheese sandwich, add mayonnaise and then top it all off with Caesar dressing.“The point is that this was available and he wanted to try it,” said Weiner. “This goes under the heading of ‘why not?’ If you can think it and it’s in front of you, you can try it.”
As a plus, touchscreens are far more reliable than store employees at upselling, offering every patron the option of extra meat, large fries or an irresistible dessert. “Now if you could get your employees to offer the extras 100% of the time, you’d get the same results,” said Weiner. “But they don’t do it.”
Need a LIFT?
Another technology designed to increase sales is LIFT Station, a suggestive-selling POS system that uses a terminal to display the store’s best offers to customers based on items they’re already buying. It is currently being used by of Indiana, Open Pantry Food Marts of Wisconsin and Tri Star Energy’s Daily stores in Tennessee.
LIFT Station hardware and software are products of LIFT Retail Marketing Technology of Atlanta. The application interfaces with a store’s POS cash register system and includes a two-sided terminal at the sales counter. When an item is scanned, LIFT identifies the best value-add offer based on the store’s promotional schedule, daypart and profitability and flashes that offer on the customer-facing screen. On the other side, the sales associate sees a message that should be read aloud to the customer, explained Jon Bausman, director of media and brand delivery for Ricker’s.
For example, a customer purchasing a bottle of Gatorade may see a message that reads “Did you know you can buy a second Gatorade for 40 cents more?” The sales associate will see a similar question that should be asked of the customer.
“Currently, the sales associate asks the question and the customer says yes or no,” Bausman said. “Eventually, the customer will be able to respond by touching a response on the screen, and the cost of the additional merchandise will be automatically totaled into the transaction.”
The LIFT Station is currently being tested in four Ricker’s locations. Although it is too early to report its impact on sales, “We’re excited to be able to roll it out,” Bausman said.
The Touchscreen Market
Memphis, Tenn., is the home of Graceland, St. Jude Hospital and the first fully automated, touchscreen convenience outlet known as SmartMart (smartmartinc.com). The SmartMart system is a combination of retail outlets, a customer assistance center, and the retailer’s headquarters.
The windowless SmartMart is a sleek, 69-foot-long facility that can stock up to 2,200 SKUs, including refrigerated, frozen and shelf-stable packaged goods and has fuel pumps on site. It features drive-through shopping ports that can serve four customers simultaneously. Each port includes a touchscreen monitor and additional technology that allows customers to shop from the driver’s seat and pay with cash, credit or debit cards.
Thanks to the automated system inside the market, merchandise delivery to the driver’s window begins 4-6 seconds after payment is made, according to Jerry Laner, president of SmartMart. The electronic system keeps track of every item, and the inventory can be replenished weekly or as needed. In addition to typical c-store items, shoppers may order hot coffee, which is dispensed from a portal on the outside of the market. A similar system for fountain soft drinks should be added soon.
If there is a problem or the shopper has a question, a live person in the remote SmartMart customer assistance center is available to help around the clock. The customer assistance center is linked to SmartMart via high-speed Internet and also serves as the age-verification system for shoppers who appear to be under 30 years old and want to purchase age-restricted products.
Annual fixed expenses at a typical c- store that generates $1.2 million in annual sales are about $500,000, according to Laner. “The SmartMart system reduces these fixed cost to below $200,000,” he said. “The huge savings dramatically increases profits.”
Mike Rivalto, SmartMart’s CEO, built the first unit as test store. He and Laner plan now to sell, assemble and deliver future markets to existing convenience chains. The chain will brand the location, and the SmartMart customer service center will monitor the market, shoppers and the site.“The SmartMart system can triple a retailer’s profits,” Laner said of the totally automated market. “It’s quick and easy and really cool.” CSD