Curbside pickup is an option every c-store operator should consider.
How have convenience store customers’ needs changed in the pandemic world? And once life starts returning to “normal,” will consumers revert back to their old ways of shopping? Such questions! I wish I had a definitive answer. What I can say with confidence is that if you are not looking at the future of convenience in a holistic view, you are missing out. That view can include a number of possible new approaches to meeting the customer in a new place of comfort. Here’s a look at some key options I’ve seen come to the fore, posed from most difficult to least.
Fast-food companies have set the standard for drive-thru service, and there are a few c-store chains that are exceptional at operating them. And consumers seem to love them. But as customer-friendly as drive-thrus are, they are expensive for retailers unless you are building many ground-up locations. And if you are willing to take on the cost of retrofitting older sites, only about 20% to 25% of existing c-store sites fit the bill. Everything must line up just right to add this feature, from physical layout to curb cuts, and there needs to be room for queuing, not to mention getting approval from local municipalities. Adding a drive-thru is capital-intensive, but it’s an opportunity to differentiate from your competitors and could be worth the cost.
Self-checkout has grown as both a labor-saving option and consumer benefit. While self-checkout provides an additional level of convenience and contactless transaction, it does not solve the concern of customers trying to avoid other people and going into stores. For the retailer, capital is necessary to install these units. The payback in labor savings is usually less than a year for each unit, so the ROI is very strong. Unfortunately, this does not solve the problem for tobacco and alcohol transactions that require age verification.
Delivery services are increasingly bringing a new level of competition to c-stores. In many cases, they warehouse their own products and are not associated with brick-and-mortar retail. As an operator, you have shelves full of product that can be delivered by staff or a third-party delivery service. Of course, those options come with increased operating costs. You may need to think like fast-food operators and offer a different pricing structure for in-house delivery and third parties such as DoorDash. The hope is that the service can provide incremental sales, albeit likely at a lower margin percentage.
Another option to help with contactless pickup are food lockers or pass-through windows. C-store lockers are similar to Amazon or UPS lockers that you may have seen in stores. In this case, associates fill lockers with orders, and the customer is given a code to unlock it and grab their stuff. While I personally am not a fan of food lockers for c-stores, there are others who believe this could be a wave of the future.
Curbside pickup is an option any c-store retailer can embrace right away for little capital and no large increase to operating costs, and one I think every operator should consider. There are details to work out, of course: How do you kick it off? Will you designate a couple of spots in front of the store for express pickup or will you have an associate deliver directly to the dispenser? And how complicated will you make your program? You could go through the process of developing a mobile app, or simply post a phone number at dispersers, on the building, or your website. Buy a portable credit-card processor and collect payment outside. It s a relatively simple way to enhance the customer experience.
Senior Principal Consultant
Tom Newbould has an incredible knowledge of the ever-changing landscape of the retail markets and has worn many hats throughout his 30 plus year career. A true expert in the c-stores, travel centers, and truckstop industry.