Five ways c-stores can enhance the customer experience

Published November 19, 2020

During the pandemic, customers have increasing options when it comes to  deciding where to buy the  essential items they need, from ecommerce to buy-online-pickup-in-store or curbside delivery. And, while shoppers may face longer lines at a grocery store, plenty still head there. But, a growing number are also deciding to walk or take a short drive to a friendly neighborhood convenience store, like yours.

When there are that many choices, you have to go the extra mile to make sure you stay top of mind with your customers. That’s why customer experience is, and always has been, a c-store's top priority. 

How to build a better shopping experience

As a c-store owner or operator, you want your customers to walk out of your store feeling appreciated. By investing in improvements to your customer experience, you'll reduce friction and optimize your operations to give your customers what they want easily, safely and conveniently.

One of the most efficient ways to optimize customer experience is to routinely collect data about your customers to better understand who they are and what they want. But, not every one of your customers is willing to part with their personal information.

Will shoppers share more information for a better shopping experience?

It depends. A PwC survey found that "while 43 percent of U.S. consumers said they would not give companies permission to collect their personal data (such as location, age, lifestyle, preferences and purchase history) to allow for more personalized, customized experiences, 63 percent said they'd be more open to sharing their data for a product or service they truly valued."

In other words, if you’re already doing an excellent job of serving your customers, delighting them during every visit and bringing added value into their lives, they'll happily hand over their personal data to get more of that customer experience.

On the flip side, PwC also found that "even when people love a company or product, 59 percent will walk away after several bad experiences and 17 percent after just one bad experience," demonstrating how customer service can truly make or break your business.

How can C-stores improve the shopping experience?

Convenience stores today are at a disadvantage with more people shopping online than ever before. But, there's also an opportunity to reach segments of the population who prefer shopping in-store and want to avoid the heavy traffic of a big-box retail chain.

So, competing in the current climate means working to eliminate as much of the hassle associated with in-person shopping as possible while providing customers with a personalized shopping experience that they can't get anywhere else.

Here are five tips to improve the customer shopping experience that’ll significantly impact your business.

1. Minimize lines

Customers hate the idea of waiting in lines, especially during a pandemic; long queues present a health hazard—it's hard to maintain proper social distancing if you're in a line in a crowded c-store. Then, the chances of your customers growing frustrated and leaving before completing their purchase is a lot more likely, not just because they’re getting impatient, but because now they don’t feel safe in your store.

Speeding customers through the check-out process can be as simple as using a modern point of sale (POS) system that's both fast and easy to use. 

Innovative POS systems can also collect customer information like email addresses and phone numbers during the check-out process. You can then use this data to craft customized offers, recommendations and discounts based on your customer’s buying history. And your POS can even help you implement a loyalty program to enhance your customer experience even more.

When it comes to waiting in lines, there are times when it can't be avoided. But, if a line does form, have screens by your check-out counter that display sponsored in-store videos and infotainment to help make the experience of waiting more enjoyable for your customers.

Also, offer customers self-checkout solutions, allowing them to grab what they need, scan, bag, and pay, and get back out the door in a hurry. This frees up your employees to better focus on welcoming, helping and interacting (social distantly) with your customers so their experience isn’t just easy and safe, it’s pleasant and engaging.

Forward-thinking, innovative c-store owners and operators can even go as far as offering cashier-less “just walk out” experiences like Aramark, Circle K, and 7-Eleven . It’s easy to see why customers find that attractive: They can walk in, grab whatever they want and walk out of the store without contacting an employee or paying in the store—because they’ve already paid electronically via the store’s computer vision and their stored payment card.

2. Embrace online and mobile

Just because you own or operate a physical store doesn't mean you should ignore the internet. By stretching your c-store's presence beyond your brick and mortar, you can reach more customers and provide curbside and delivery services—all of which helps increase revenue.

Here are some things to keep in mind for creating a strong online presence:

  • Ensure that your store is easily located on every web mapping service and that all local online store locators have the proper operating hours listed, and that your phone number and hours of operation are up to date
  • Use social media to communicate with your customers; for example, if there's a sale, a change in operations, or a special event coming up, let them know with a Facebook or Instagram post—and do it in an engaging way (don’t shy away from relative newcomers like TikTok)
  • Invest in a mobile app that allows for curbside pick-up or delivery of essential items to customers who may be unable or unwilling to leave their homes.

Another way to increase engagement with your customers is to send information to your customers’ mobile devices. A recent survey found that 57 percent of consumers use mobile apps in-store to access coupons. Take advantage of this by using technology to text, email or push coupons out to your customers, regularly prompting them to come back to your store.

By having a presence both online and in-store, you make it easier for new customers to find you and existing customers to continue buying from you, however they want to.

3. Keep safety and hygiene top of mind

The pandemic has undoubtedly created new challenges for retailers wanting to provide excellent customer service. A report commissioned by Periscope® by McKinsey reveals that more than 50 percent of consumers want stores to follow strict guidelines to help keep shoppers and employees safe. That includes installing plexiglass at check-out counters, wearing masks, and offering hand sanitizer. And, 59 percent of consumers say it's important for stores not to be too crowded.

To help your customers feel more safe when they come to your c-store, post your updated cleaning, sanitation and social distancing policies on your website and in your store windows. And, limit the number of customers allowed in your store at any given time.

During times of uncertainty, consumers need reassurance that your brand is doing everything within its power to keep them and your employees safe—and letting them know what you’re doing can go a long way in meeting customer demands.

4. Offer contactless payment

Speaking of safety, a study released in August 2020 by Forrester and National Retail Federation offered a lot of interesting facts about how the pandemic has influenced consumers desire for contactless payments. Among retailers:

  • 67 percent accept some form of contactless payments
  • 58 percent accept contactless cards, a 40 percent increase compared to 2019
  • 56 percent accept digital wallet payments, a 44 percent increase
  • 94 percent said they expect the use of and the expectation for contactless payments to increase

For consumers:

  • One-fifth said this year was the first time they made a contactless payment (during the pandemic)
  • 62 percent said they used mobile wallets
  • 56 percent said they used contactless cards
  • 57 percent said that after the pandemic they will continue using contactless payments

So, post-COVID-19, contactless experiences could quickly become the de-facto standard, leaving c-stores that don't make the leap lagging behind their competitors that do.

C-stores have the opportunity to implement a variety of low-to-no contact solutions, including enabling their POS system to accept contactless payments, and provide curbside pick-up and delivery to enhance the customer experience. And, your customers will feel safe shopping in your store and visiting your forecourt.

5. Maintain fully-stocked shelves

During the pandemic, with the increase of panic-buying, keeping shelves constantly well stocked may be easier said than done. As a retailer, you're dealing with countless challenges, including interruptions throughout the supply chain, limited staff, the addition of safety procedures that slow productivity, and more.

And even with your employees working around the clock to keep shelves stocked, sometimes demand is high and essential items must be prioritized. That can lead to an increase in empty store shelves and frustrated customers who may then have to visit other stores, further risking their safety.

But, there are ways to help keep shelves stocked which can boost your customer’s experience when they can rely on getting what they need at your store—like leveraging technology to help combat staffing and logistical challenges. On-demand platforms can provide a turnkey solution for c-stores to respond to a range of supply chain issues instantly, and simplify the entire process.  The right technology platform can help you with everything from keeping shelves stocked to data and competitive intelligence, depending on your needs. 

Giving them the customer service that leads loyalty—now and after the pandemic

Hopefully these tips can help you put together measures to increase your customer service during the pandemic. And when it’s over the changes you make now can help provide experiences that will delight your customers well after it ends. From safety measures like sanitizing and accepting contactless payments to well-stocked shelves, there are ways to improve the customer service you provide to set your c-store apart.

Select a technology partner that can help to modernize and automate your stores in the highly competitive convenience market, so you don’t just survive—but win.

Not engaging your customers at the pump could be a lost revenue opportunity, learn why.

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