In a car-dominated society like United States, no one has to sell gasoline because gas more or less sells itself. Consumers are definitely going to fuel up their cars — on average American households can be counted on to purchase approximately five full tanks of gas per month, racking up 42 million transactions per day.
Where those consumers go to do the fueling — and whether or not they will buy anything else at the station while they are there — remains a rather open question. Most of the time, consumers make the choice to fill up based on where they happen to be when the tank is on or nearing “E.” And, 70 percent of the time they never even so much as set foot in the store attached to the station. Gas and go is the mode.
This week’s episode of The Matchmaker Is In series takes a closer look at the ready-to-be-disrupted world of retail fuel-related commerce. Hosts Karen Webster and David Evans, economist and author of “Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multisided Platforms,” take an inside tour of the retail fuel industry technology scene with Don Frieden, CEO of P97 Networks, to learn how mobile technology and the cloud hope to make pay at the pump and buy at the convenience store attached to it an app and a click away.
Reaching The Other 70 Percent
“Today, on average, only 30 percent of consumers who buy fuel at the pump go buy at the convenience store. One of our challenges is to connect to the other 70 percent of customers,” Frieden told Evans and Webster.
Reaching that other 70 percent, Frieden notes, is one of the issues at heart of matchmaking in the retail fuel industry, as it brings together the essential challenge of the three stakeholders involved in the transaction: the fuel brands trying to build loyal customers, the station operator trying to boost margins by selling fuel customers a cup of coffee and the consumer who just wants to fill ‘er up as quickly and easily and cheaply as possible.
“Obviously dipping a card at the pump isn’t a terrible system — but it is one we can improve on by allowing customers to begin most of the process in their car by using an app to access the pump ahead of time, which shaves off time,” Frieden noted.
And while the extra few second mobile payments nets doesn’t mean much in many areas, Evans noted, when it comes to filling up a car in the dead of winter in the Boston metro-area (or the height of summer in the Deep South) those extra few seconds actually make a big difference to any consumer.
And making a big difference to said customer is the essential job — because they’re the hardest group to reach.
“The real challenge over the long term is the consumer — and how to get them to engage in mobile payments and then to repeat the use,” Frieden noted.
And download the fuel brand app.
Getting Consumers On Board
P97 — and the ecosystem it is powering — is making a bet that leveraging the mobile wallets that already exist (the usual cast of Pay players) and oil brand apps are the silver bullet. Those apps then become the digital platforms to serve marketing and other customer loyalty programs to those app users. Loyalty to the brand and upsell at the pump is the goal.
Frieden noted that fuel brands had early on considered — and then rejected— building their own mobile wallets before deciding that was a lost cause. And fuel brands themselves didn’t seem enamored with the idea of letting mobile wallet brands be the front-face to the consumer, so matching fuel-branded apps with existing mobile payments platforms seemed the easiest match to make.
“They just didn’t really solve the problem of helping either the fuel brands or the merchants get any closer to their customers.”
The hope is that consumers will fall in love with the benefits of mobile pay at the pump so much that it will increase the number of fill-ups at that brand. Currently, Frieden said, 75 percent of the time, consumers use another brand to make their gas purchases. The lure of the app is intended to up repeat usage, something that Frieden noted has been observed in some of their early work.
Rewards are also the way that Frieden says that the brands are hoping to entice consumers to download the app.
“The industry found it takes between 5 and 10 cents a gallon to change consumer behavior — so they start by offering cash discounts at the pump,” Frieden noted.
That is a starting point, Frieden notes, but not an end point — from those simple discounts, brands can move to linking mobile use to customer promotions — ones that hopefully drive the consumer into a retail store — and then to other stores either attached to the fuel station or in the surrounding area.
“The beauty of contextual commerce is that the sky’s the limit on how oil companies can create loyalty programs.”
That means giving brands the chance to offer music downloads, or a 32 ounce drink to go with every 32 ounces of fuel sold — the point, Frieden said, is flexibility, because when one is matchmaking, “mobile is allowing oil companies to differentiate for the first time ever their loyalty offerings.”
Enforcing The Habit
Webster noted that P97’s technology could be poised to become a quiet catalyst in driving mobile wallet usage overall.
Frieden agreed. The point, he notes, is to keep consumers tapped into their phones — and able to move from one use case to another in a way that feels seamless and useful.
This is where another technology — beacons — can also help. Frieden noted that mobile tech is well served by beacons as boosters, so that when consumers pull into the station or are even within striking distance of one, they are reminded to pull in for a fill up and pay with their phone — and grab a soda or cuppa joe while they’re at it.
“The biggest issue we’ve seen since hitting the market in 2012 is a lot of chaos and confusion among the mobile payments products. We think we offer a good way to keep the customer on course.”
Mobile gas pay is getting a big boost — inadvertently — by EMV, which will be required for all stations by Oct. 2017 — and the brands and station operators tasked with deploying it.
It will be quite an expensive upgrade — estimates place the total cost of retrofitting U.S. gas pumps somewhere in the $3 billion range. Mobile tech, which handles all the payments in the cloud instead of at the pump, has a reasonable chance of leapfrogging here, Frieden notes — simply because it creates the option that is easiest and cheapest for all the stakeholders involved.
And ease of use — with a benefit for everyone — is the power play that mobile has for fuel stations. None of it is life-changing — people have lived through standing outside in freezing rain to pump gas for generations — but it is greatly life improving and thus extremely habit forming.
The first rule of making a match is make the match seem indispensable to those who’ve been set up.
And getting that first download, and then the next eight or so usages to make the habit stick.