Those history teachers were right after all — to better understand the future, one must first understand the past. In the particular case of convenience store (C-store) commerce, a section of retail poised to become a vital part of the emerging connected vehicle ecosystem, that means taking a journey back several decades, during the mid-century peak of carhop culture.
Even if one doesn’t personally remember carhops, they’ve almost certainly seen carhops in movies or other media. Those highly mobile waiters and waitresses — often on roller skates — would serve wonderful, greasy burgers, fries and other fast food to patrons in their cars, which were parked outside the restaurants. Delivery was the differentiator, the convenience factor that drew people to drive-in locations.
Delivery could be the force that drives convenience stores into their next phase. In a new PYMNTS interview with Karen Webster, Don Frieden, CEO of mobile commerce and digital marketing firm P97, said that offering pumpside delivery of C-store products — pretty much the general model used by carhops — could help those stores grow and evolve to meet the needs of modern, digitally minded consumers.
The interview comes amid significant shifts involving convenience stores. A general trend of declining fuel prices is not producing the typical growth in C-store gas sales, Frieden said. Better fuel efficiency is also playing a role in this — he told Webster that the typical owner of a Ford F-150 truck, among the best-selling vehicles in history, now makes nine fewer gas runs each year than the owner of that same truck about a decade ago. That means every remaining trip to a gas station/C-store has more importance from the standpoint of the merchant.
“Every trip has to count,” he said.
That’s where the updated carhop idea comes in. During those fueling runs, according to Frieden, consumers typically have three to four minutes of relatively idle time — time in which trained C-store workers could deliver to those vehicles at the pump products that were pre-ordered and already paid for by those consumers (perhaps via their connected vehicle eCommerce technology).
“You have to create great experiences for customers,” he said, adding that providing a friction-free, relevant and even fun experience matters, particularly to younger consumers like millennials. Not to mention, those experiences go beyond pumpside deliveries.
For instance, fresh, made-to-order food is vital for a C-store looking to reach those consumers, and otherwise thrive in this digital era. Hot dogs and chips just don’t do the job anymore, especially with more grocery stores and restaurants offering curbside delivery and mobile-order ahead, and a host of online food delivery services standing ready to feed those hungry shoppers, commuters and other drivers.
“You either have to cook food and have great food, or you have to have a partner” located inside the C-store that does the same, Frieden said. Indeed, seeking those partnerships can prove more pragmatic than doing good food on one’s own. “It’s difficult to get into the business and establish yourself from ground zero,” he explained. “If you can leverage a brand, that can be a fast track.”
Other incentives include storage lockers for eCommerce packages — one can easily spend an afternoon watching all that home security camera footage on YouTube of thieves stealing Amazon and other packages from customers’ porches, yards and driveways. In addition, robust mobile and loyalty programs are not only vital, but basically table stakes at this point, he told Webster. The trick is getting consumers to download the relevant C-store app — that requires some finesse, as one must get the message out via text or email without coming across as too pushy, Frieden said. However, once a customer downloads that app, loyalty and repeat visits tend to follow.
The eternal basics also count. “If you don’t have a clean restroom,” he said, “people aren’t going to buy your food at the convenience store.”
C-store success and growth are certainly possible, even amid these significant challenges and historic retail trends. Frieden used the example of a convenience store chain located in the Northeast, where customers sometimes “come back seven times a week.” Sure, one of those trips tends to be for gas, but the others are for coffee, fresh-made food and other items — along with the reliable service.
“It’s about the experience they have created,” Frieden said, summing up both the main challenge and main opportunity for convenience store retail in 2019, and the next few years to come.