Convenience Stores’ Priority in 2021? Becoming Convenient Once Again

In a COVID-19 world, c-store operators find safety and speed are equally important – and equally challenging. That’s why they’re getting creative with contactless technology solutions.

A convenience store customer uses a contactless scanner to redeem loyalty rewards
by Mark Delaney
May 10, 2021

COVID-19 changed the retail experience in many ways, the most notable being the widespread implementation of contactless ordering and checkout options that support strict social distancing. Though it may have been inconvenient to reconfigure store layouts to install self-checkout lanes or staff up to offer drive-up services, those who were able to do so quickly were applauded by customers and associates alike – particular in convenience store (c-store) settings.

C-stores’ main value proposition is convenience – it’s literally in their name – and they have always been held to a higher standard than traditional retail and grocery stores when it comes to speed of service. Customers expect to be able to get in and out fast and will become frustrated if they must wait in line more than a few minutes to pick up food, pump gas, refill their cups or pay.

Yet, COVID-19 health protocols and customers’ inclination to minimize time in stores has made it difficult to sustain traditional c-store operations:

  • Associates must now manage what were previously self-service food and beverage stations, a job that can keep them from doing anything else during a shift when foot traffic is high.
  • The increased frequency and thoroughness of cleaning leads to more “downtime” between transactions and can take associates away from registers for a prolonged period of time to attend to other parts of the store.
  • Some local regulations still dictate capacity limits for c-stores (and all businesses), which can delay customers in transit and drive them to forgo the high-margin impulse purchases or find an alternative pit stop completely.

Though many of these factors are beyond anyone’s control, C-store operators must find ways to adjust their service models if they want to regain their competitive edge. That’s where contactless scanning comes in.

Contactless Checkout (and Check In) Is Proving Very Convenient – for Everyone!

Even before the pandemic, C-store staff members were challenged to offer a speedy experience. During a typical peak-period shift, there may have only been three or four associates on duty: one running the food station or restocking shelves, one handling the administrative tasks (i.e., vendor, inventory and logistics management), and one or two managing registers. That’s if the C-store was fully staffed. Sometimes there was one person at the register and one person doing everything else. A single lottery ticket transaction could cause the queue to build 10-people deep in a matter of minutes, significantly slowing down checkout and reducing the convenience factor. And it wasn’t unheard of for coffee stations to run empty or cleaning duties to be delayed to the end of the shift, all of which impacted the overall c-store customer experience. Customers and associates alike would have appreciated the convenience of self-checkout lanes, much like the ones you see at a traditional grocery store.

But what would have been deemed a luxury just 12 months ago is now table stakes.

We know from Zebra’s latest Global Shopper Study that many people will only shop at stores with contactless checkout options, such as self-checkout. And we know C-store associates can’t sustain the increased workload brought about by the pandemic. Cleaning duties can no longer wait until the end of a shift. And customers are no longer at liberty of reaching into a warmer to grab a hot dog or under cabinets to restock the creamer bin themselves. This has led many C-store operators to take a page – and some scanning solutions – from traditional retailers:

It’s becoming more likely that C-store customers will get in and out without ever interacting with an associate thanks to new self-checkout lanes being installed. Bioptic scanners that can weigh produce, confirm a customer indeed has donuts in a bag and accurately scan barcoded items with a single swipe are allowing C-store operators to keep register queues short and customers happy with the convenience of the shopping experience. Those who want to get really creative – and embrace more sustainable practices – can even create reusable beverage cups with built-in Digimarc codes that customers can scan at self-checkout to confirm the size of their beverage – no associate verification needed. Even better, the customer can be rewarded with a discount for using the more environmentally friendly cup.

It’s common to see countertop barcode scanners that empower customers to rapidly scan loyalty app QR codes and even make digital payments in a completely touchless manner. In fact, 64% of C-store operators in the U.S. offer mobile pay in-store today and many in Europe were offering this option as early as 2018. Some are even taking it to the next level by allowing customers to self-scan items as they shop using a mobile app on their smartphones so the associate doesn’t even have to touch the items. The benefits are significant, as the only thing the associate and customer may need to exchange is a quick hello as the barcode or QR code is scanned at the counter and a visual inspection of cart items is completed.

Kiosks are helping to manage capacity at truck stop shower stations, restaurants and even tire service centers, allowing for quick check-in and queuing as well as automated alerts when guests are cleared to enter the facilities. This helps to prevent crowding inside or at entry points and allows associates to stay focused on managing food orders, assisting customer with controlled items (i.e., tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets), cleaning stalls and other high-value tasks which help improve customer churn rates.

Those who have vending machines in store should also consider transitioning to a digital payment option that allows customers to tap and go. If the vending machine has a built-in scan engine in the display, it could be easy to accept QR code- or barcode-based payment methods and even scan loyalty cards to allow customers to earn and redeem rewards these types of transactions.

Along those same lines, it could be very beneficial to set up a buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) contactless collection station using either temperature-controlled lockers (as Rowan Fuller described in this blog post) or even a vending machine-type system to provide a fast grab-and-go service for pre-made and made-to-order food items as well as convenience items. The store associate could prepare/pick orders, put them in the lockers, and move onto the next batch. Customers could be alerted via the C-store’s loyalty mobile app when their orders are ready and then retrieve the items themselves – either in store or in the parking lot. With many C-store operators planning to add “app-based order ahead” and “order at the pump” shopping options this year, it only makes sense to simultaneously introduce self-service pickup options. Plus, it reduces the burden on associates and reduces the number of face-to-face interactions for all.

What’s More Convenient Than a “Drive Thru” or “Drive Up” Transaction?

Of course, many C-store operators are also starting to realize the definition of “convenience” has drastically changed in the past year. For many consumers, convenience is no longer about how quickly they can get in and out of the store, but whether they have to go in at all. In fact, many C-store retailers, though optimistic about economies opening back up and travel resuming, understand foot traffic may not recover to pre-pandemic levels this year. So, they’re looking for ways to serve customers outside the four walls to increase transaction volume and size. In fact, curbside, drive thru and home delivery services are among the hottest new trends for C-stores in 2021, as is “mobile pay at the pump” for those with fuel service. Again, contactless scanning solutions are proving key to execution, though:

Interactive touch displays with barcode scan engines allow for customers to shop and pay for items at the pump using multiple contactless methods while fueling up. They can, of course, also pay for fuel and earn/redeem loyalty rewards with a quick, touchless scan of a mobile app’s barcode or QR code.

Customers who place orders in the app can scan the QR code or barcode at the pump before they begin fueling vehicles to notify the attendant of their arrival and allow time for final order prep. They can either meet at the door for the handoff, customers can go into the store to pick up the order or they can have orders brought curbside while pumping. If there are any issues, the attendant can communicate with customers over the speaker at the pump, and customers can respond using push-to-talk functionality.

Those who go through the drive-thru can present a QR code or barcode to the attendant at the window for a quick loyalty and/or payment scan using a cordless barcode scanner. It’s even possible to position the scanner so the associate doesn’t have to pick it up and put it down each time; it can just remain on the ledge for the customer to reach from the vehicle to facilitate a touchless scan transaction once the order total is confirmed. (Think about what you might experience at a drive-thru Starbucks today.)

Those who operate walk-up C-stores in airports, shopping centers, office buildings and heavily (foot) trafficked city centers should also consider the ways kiosks and other image scanner technologies can facilitate access and/or payments – particularly for locations that are minimally staffed or not staffed at all. For example, you could position a hybrid imager at the door to read ID cards before granting automated door access. The customer could then scan items as they go using a mobile app – or checkout using a countertop imager or bioptic scanner to ensure accurate scanning. A quick scan of the ID card again to confirm the customer’s identity, along with a scan of the loyalty app and/or alternative mobile payment method, could then complete the checkout process and automatically open the exit doors. The bioptic scanner if used, could help reduce fraud and theft in combination with other loss prevention solutions.

More “Foot” Traffic, Less Friction

No matter your C-store model, the key to recovery lies in your ability to offer the most convenient shopping and dining experience possible. You have to take the best of what grocery stores, drug stores and quick service restaurants (QSR) offer in terms of fulfillment if you want to keep customers coming to you first – and keep them coming back. If they feel it takes too long to get what they need from you, or they feel their safety is not being prioritized, they will move on. It’s also important to have the right inventory mix on the shelf and menu, but we’ll talk more about that in a future blog post.

For now, take some time to assess your workflows and your traffic flow. How can you help customers get in and out of your parking lot (not just your doors) faster – and more refreshed – than ever before? If you’re not sure how best to introduce contactless scanning technologies into your C-store environment or you need help selecting the right solutions, mapping out an implementation strategy and actually getting the tools online, the Zebra team would be happy to help. We have C-store retail experts in every region of the world. Send us a note and we’ll connect you with the right person to get the conversation started.

You can also learn more about the Zebra scanning solutions many C-store retailers are already using with great success on our website:

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Editor’s Note:

Visit our website to learn more about how Zebra’s technology solutions can help improve the execution of your C-store operations. You may also be interested in these related blog posts:

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Mark Delaney
Mark Delaney has more than 20 years of experience in the retail industry and has worked with most large retailers globally. He is currently a retail industry consultant at Zebra Technologies, working with retailers’ c-level leaders to determine which strategic technology solutions can best address their current challenges. He keeps a strong pulse on industry trends and frequently solicits retailers’ feedback on the technology investments that Zebra is making to help inform and advance the company’s innovation with a customer-first mindset.