As the company’s chief digital officer, Sethia and his team have built what is arguably the most valuable loyalty program in retail with more than 33 million members. And it’s all in the name of what Sethia said he sees as the company’s mission, which is a bit more complex than serving Slurpees and giant soft drinks.
“We are a company that is immersed into solving customer problems,” he said. “So, the way our company was created was in the 1920s, grocery stores closed at 5. We said we'll give you ice and some fruits after 5 p.m. Then, the customer said, ‘Grocery stores close at 5, and we can’t even buy milk, bread and eggs.’ So, we started putting that in. Now fast forward. Our customer said, ‘Hey, we go to work early; we need to-go coffee.’ We were the first ones to come up with a to-go cup of coffee. We were the first ones to come up with to-go soda. We were the first ones to have a gas station.”
Full stop. Because it’s at the fuel pump that Sethia and his team have made their latest customer innovation. It announced this week that it is piloting Fuel Loyalty at participating 7-Eleven stores in North and South Orlando, Florida; North Texas; and Woodbridge, Virginia. The program is designed to provide contactless payment options to reduce touch in the pandemic era as well as drive savings for loyalty program members.
A new voice commerce technology, developed internally, allows customers to pay for fuel through the 7Rewards loyalty program found in the 7-Eleven app by using mobile payment options or Siri shortcuts. The company said it’s the first retailer to offer voice commands to pay for gas. It is starting in the aforementioned test markets and Apple devices and will quickly roll out nationwide and to Android devices.
“We were always looking at how we make fuel a frictionless experience,” Sethia said. “And with the pandemic happening, we actually accelerated that to create a contactless experience. We asked ourselves, ‘How could we put technology to work to help the customers?’ So, you come to the store, and your phone knows it’s there, and because of geolocation, it knows that you are at this pump. You then are you at this gas station. You just choose the pump and how much you want to fill. The value starts for the customer right there. They see the incremental value they're getting.”
Sethia said many smartphone customers already use voice commands.
“Can we connect those? Yes, we can, and we’re the first convenience store retailer to do so,” he said.
As Sethia noted, voice commerce has been accelerated by the pandemic. While many consumers believe that buying things online is faster and more convenient, they also find it safer than going to a physical store and risking COVID-19 exposure. PYMNTS surveys have found that before returning to brick-and-mortar locations, consumers want to see safety measures that include contactless payment options (favored by 59.7 percent of respondents) and payment methods that don’t require touching a card reader (58.6 percent).
Although it was not as played up as the voice commerce angle, 7-Eleven has also made another high impact fuel move. Under current credit card protocol, consumers have to clear up to $100 to pay for gasoline at the pump. With so many people unemployed or underemployed, that has been a tough bar to clear. 7-Eleven has been working with card companies to lower or even do away with those limitations. Sethia noted that it keeps in tune with the “solving customer problems” theme.
“We are not going to stop there with voice commerce,” he said. “But we’re also not going to just put voice commerce for the sake of putting voice commerce. We are going to put it in a way that helps customers and solves their core problems. So, for example, we've tested voice commerce with our 7Now delivery app, and we're looking at how can we help solve problems for delivery with voice commerce. There are also things around mobile wallets or payment experiences or buying shopping experiences or delivering experiences that we will explore, but we are not going to just do it for the sake of doing it in this particular case. We must know of a very legitimate customer problem before we take action.”
Sethia said the company is also very comfortable at this point focusing on fuel as the center of the voice commerce and loyalty intersection. With 33 million members, his department sees millions of data points, and that’s one of the ways loyalty program features are added. One of the reasons Florida, Texas and Virginia were chosen as pilot programs is because of the amount of driving its customers were doing despite lockdown orders or pandemic restrictions. That data forms the center of how Sethia said he sees his job as chief digital officer.
“The 7-Eleven app generates the data that tells us what customers do and what time they do it,” he said. “So, it helps us connect with the customers depending on the time of the day and where they are and gives them recommended or personalized offers for them. And it actually helps our merchandising people to put up the products that customers want.”