Traditional convenience store customers aren't known for, or pursued for, their loyalty. Convenience store buys have historically been viewed as impulsive by nature – the quick candy bar, lotto ticket or pack of smokes (those less of that in the era of anti-tobacco legislation). No one brings a list, or plans a shopping run to the corner market. The shopping that does happen there, happens because it's … well, convenient. You're already there, may as well grab a candy bar.
But the last decade has seen convenience stores aspire to more.
Specifically, the Louisville, Kentucky-based Thorntons chain spent much of the late 90s and early 2000s upgrading the convenience experience at its now 192 locations. In practical terms, that meant adding better prepared food offerings, and a wider selection of groceries and beverages, all served up in a more customer-friendly environment.
However, in the intervening two decades, a large swath of the convenience store marketplace has caught up to that idea. Better food offerings and a more inviting environment are becoming if not commonplace, at least standard. Offering a lot more is now considered offering "just enough."
For Thorntons, the challenge going forward is to continue to give their customers a reason to consistently choose their locations, even as the competition narrows and the offerings become more similar.
Recently, Thorntons has begun moving into loyalty and rewards for its customers, with an assist from Paytronix’s rewards program and Koupon Media’s mobile offer capabilities and database of consumer packaged goods offers.
The goal, for Thorntons, is to connect the dots between the goods they are already selling to consumers and actually rewarding them for purchasing them at their stores.
It's a retention marketing play in an arena where they aren't made nearly as often, largely due to the transient nature of the shopper population. But according to Thorntons, the ability to provide consumers with a mobile solution that is loyalty-focused has "changed the game for our marketing efforts.”
The ability to offer savings via coupons gets more customers in the door, and also serves to boost the consumer experience and make the shopping process that much more enjoyable. Chains don't just want customers – they want lifelong customers who keep coming back. And in the modern era of retail, according to Thorntons, that means making loyalty rewards for the customer.
“Paytronix continues to find new ways to expand its relationships within the retailers’ tech ecosystem, making it easier for marketers to discover new ways to drive transactions,” said Michelle Tempesta, head of marketing for Paytronix. “Koupon Media’s expertise to provide access to CPG-funded programs will benefit C-store brands that leverage individual customer data to deliver relevant, compelling and profitable offers.”
Moreover, as is often the case in modern retail, the data is the thing, and Thorntons' reward for being so rewarding is that they will get to know a whole lot more about their customers as individual shoppers. What are they buying, when are they shopping, how often do they buy gas, do they always buy gas before they come in? There is a host of things the brand can't determine with all that much accuracy by just watching who comes in and out of the store. But it is something they can track quite precisely when customers are coming in, filling up, buying a snack and doing it all through the chain's loyalty program.
Will it change the game for Thorntons? Hard to say. Media reports that circulated earlier this summer stated that Thorntons is actually looking to exit the market by finding itself a buyer, and had even hired investment bank Lazard to help explore a sale.
Thorntons has offered no official comment on the subject, and no new reports have emerged since June. However, experts in the field note that all the improvements the small chain has made – and seems committed to continuing to make – means the brand will remain a particularly attractive target for larger players in the increasingly heating up convenience market.
“Right now, the reason for mergers and acquisitions is there are very willing buyers and the multiples are strong,” said Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives for the National Association of Convenience Stores. “The value of convenience is extremely high, and if you are a good operator, there are opportunities to do something in the market.”