Mobile Applications

To App Or Not To App (In The Gas And C-Store Space)

If or when to app, perhaps, is more the question. In a world in which consumers are downloading fewer apps, gas and C-store operators face different challenges when getting consumers on board the app express. Kristen Bailey, VP of consumer engagement at ZipLine, describes the ways in which C-stores can use apps to tip the scales of mobile payments adoption and consumer engagement.

The Bard had it right when he (or she, or they, depending on which side of the “who was Shakespeare” camp you fall into) wrote “to thine own self be true.” And also, “to app or not to app.”

We’re only a bit tongue-in-cheek here. For retailers, after all, going mobile can be an existential crisis of sorts. To reach the best customers, in the best way, and drive sales in the process, is an application enough?

In an interview with PYMNTS’ Karen Webster, Kristen Bailey, vice president of consumer engagement at ZipLine, stated that just glomming onto an app is hardly an efficient retail strategy.

Bailey said that retailers typically look at two approaches. The first, she said, are “apps for the sake of having an app. If you need one, it’s ‘Let’s have an app,’ as opposed to the second approach, which is ‘Let’s have an app to drive desired behavior.’”

It may be no surprise, then, that the retailers who fall in the latter category are, according to Bailey, “in a better position to create an environment that allows them to think about what works” and what their longer-term plans are for extensions of consumer experience in a mobile setting. “Knowing that many of their consumers are going mobile” means that the brand must be extended to the point where consumers define themselves as part of a brand, akin to “I’m a Harley Davidson person, or I am a Mac person … that is the real core relevancy,” she added, “when a consumer defines themselves by what they buy” and thus a self-identification that sets the stage for an optimal mobile experience.

Having an application on the phone, she said, expresses a consumer’s deep connection to a brand (even to, say, convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven or Cumberland Farms).

Webster noted that the sticking point in actually downloading apps remains, with some reticence existing on the part of the consumer. After all, she said, the data shows that the average download on a monthly basis is less than one (!). “People spend most of their time on social apps and may not be looking at retail apps,” posited Webster. The gas station operator or the convenience store operator faces a challenge in staying relevant in that environment.

The key is reaching across different types of consumers, said Bailey. Which, in the first instance, means knowing who they are. And, she said, the consumers who frequent convenience stores fall into several buckets.

There’s the “grab-and-go” consumer, who runs in to get that candy bar after pumping gas and beats it out the front door. There’s another group, the “impulse” consumer, who associates the outlet with a type of purchase or product (a beverage, for example) that is associated with that store directly. The third group is the prize: the consumer who “shops the store, who sees the store across categories … not just shopping for breakfast coffee and muffins,” she said, “but shopping for lunch, shopping for snacks across categories, into automotive or movies.” The retailers who are creating an environment that is conducive to a happy consumer who might broaden their shopping palette create, according to Bailey, “an environment that can be extended to a mobile consumer.”

As to just how gas or convenience stores may see their clientele, Bailey noted that those businesses see “a more loyal consumer … and more stickiness,” which equates to a more profitable customer relationship. But, she said, they should want to build a bridge from one category of consumer to the next, turning the grab-and-go consumer into one that is persuaded to “shop the store.”

That is not without its challenges, particularly in the C-store category, in which there are a number of franchisees who may all not deliver the same consumer experience to their consumers across all of their stores.

“You may have a small group of people who represent a significant portion of your business,” said Bailey, “and they buy anything for any occasion … The loyal customers drive the loyalty programs.”

So, given those complexities, does every brand have the potential to bring an app into the fold to drive desired consumer behavior? The answer is yes, said Bailey. “Every brand is going to be in a different stage along that spectrum of consumer experience,” she said. “And so, the brands that are clear about what they are trying to deliver to the consumer and know who they are, and clearly express it, and bring it to bear and bring it to life in all aspects of the guest experience — they are positioned to expand all that into a mobile experience … In some cases, it may take some setup to be clear on [all of this].”

Frequency of engagement opens the door for creating an addictive mobile payments experience. As Webster contended, not everyone goes to Macy’s every day, but many people do stop off for a cup of coffee on their way to work each day as part of the daily commute.

And yet, even with that frequency of interaction, consumers just don’t have mobile payments front and center as part of their top-of-mind payments methods (perhaps they simply don’t remember that that option is readily available). Frequency of visits simply does not translate into an uptick in frequency of mobile payments.

To reach a tipping point, said Bailey, “non-food retailers who offer a mobile experience … it’s still about the relevancy of the brand.” Retailers would do well to keep consumers up to date on news specific to that company and should push content actively to those users. “It’s up to the consumer how often they want to digest that context and how they want to receive it,” said Bailey.

And in “closing the loop” in the customer experience, payments, of course, come into play, as Webster said. “It feels like a full-circle experience,” said Bailey, as the whole continuum of the purchase is done through the app itself, leading to greater consumer stickiness.

“Putting your money where your mouth is,” stated Bailey, “is a lot different than answering a survey” about brand preferences and loyalty.

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