As the convenience store (C-store) and retail petroleum industry continues to make progress in upgrading their forecourts to accept Europay, Mastercard, and Visa (EMV) payments at the dispenser, some emerging trends point to new opportunities.
“While the essence of the C-store is still one of ‘Cokes, smokes, and gas,’ the industry is evolving in profound ways,” said Tim Tang, director of Enterprise Solutions at Hughes. “The big question is: Where can operators make meaningful improvements to the business and set themselves up to take advantage of these trends?”
Here we answer that question and offer three top trend-based opportunities.
- Look Beyond Fuel Sales, Optimize the Customer’s Retail Experience
As in every retail environment – whether in person or online – the customer experience is critical and presents a valuable opportunity for increasing revenue and loyalty. Where might a retailer find business opportunities in improving the customer experience? Mr. Tang said operators can leverage a growing portfolio of customer engagement tools to convert fuel patrons into retail patrons.
“Mobile pay apps not only encourage fuel brand loyalty, but they are also a prime channel for retail engagement,” he said. “AI/ML-enabled loyalty apps improve an operator’s ability to understand what and when a customer may need an item. Dynamic digital signage drives engagement with timely, relevant messaging. As consumers embrace mobile orders, curbside pickup, and third-party delivery services, C-store operators need a high performance, API-enabled store platform to automate a satisfying and scalable customer experience.”
In addition to engagement opportunities, operators can examine the in-store experience. Where are the friction points? Are there long checkout lines, slow POS transactions, or inconvenient and inefficient store operations? Each step to improve the customer experience drives the conversion rate.
- Protect the Brand with Robust Cybersecurity
“While many retail petroleum operators have been focused on supporting EMV chip transactions in the forecourt, they need to realize that EMV only protects the integrity of credit card transactions. It does not address the cybersecurity needs of the rest of the store, specifically the back-office systems. With the C-store’s dependence on digital infrastructure, a cyberattack may have devastating consequences,” Mr. Tang said. “Data breaches violate the customer’s trust. Each time that happens, consumers look to take their business elsewhere.”
The list of cybersecurity challenges is long, and includes increasingly complex technologies, fewer qualified personnel, an expanding threat surface, and evolving Payment Card Industry (PCI) requirements. To address the business’ need to improve store operational efficiency, as Mr. Tang described, operators are deploying more and more technology, such as IoT sensors, kitchen automation, and security surveillance tools. Each device, tool or piece of equipment that connects to the network increases the threat surface and must be protected.
“The time to prepare is now, before a cyber threat comes into the store,” he warned. “Any and every step towards elevating a store’s security posture is a step towards protecting the brand. That may involve training employees to recognize phishing attacks, keeping software up to date, and proactively monitoring the firewall.”
- Strengthen the Store’s Digital Infrastructure
“As we think about the C-store, we see that entire operations are increasingly dependent on their digital infrastructure,” Mr. Tang said. This is a shift away from when an operator could process offline credit card transactions if the network went down.
“There’s no such thing as an offline mobile order or an offline loyalty rewards redemption. The network is critical,” he said. “But we’re not just talking about occasional total outages, operational networks may experience significant congestion on a daily, even hourly basis, which routinely destroys the in-store customer experience. While operators may quickly recognize the impact of a slow fuel dispenser due to a clogged filter, they also need a similar sensitivity to the impact of a congested network on the customer’s digital experience.”
One option for C-stores according to Mr. Tang, is to consider Managed Software Defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN) solutions, which can improve network performance, a store’s cybersecurity posture, and the overall in-store experience for customers and employees.
“As a service provider, Hughes makes technology easier and simpler,” he said. “We develop and deliver solutions to solve the problems industries face. We have a whole portfolio of managed services designed to simplify IT, with solutions like digital signage that can encourage customers to come into the store or Wi-Fi to facilitate strong mobile engagement on the curb, in the parking lot as well as in store.”
Working closely with the Hughes team, C-store operators can identify where they can strengthen their digital infrastructure, make meaningful operational improvements, and turn trends into opportunities.