CSP Magazine – Ticking Tech Timeline and the Potential of AI
The convenience store business has come a long way from sites having a couple of pumps in front of a repair facility. Back then, a full-service experience included fueling the car, checking the oil and the air pressure in the tires, washing the windows and trying to sell the customer new wiper blades, all while the consumer sat in the comfort of their vehicle.
Then, in the 1970s, sites added canopies, introduced self-service, eliminated repair bays to create space for snacks, coffee and drinks. Rolling into the ’80s, we added packaged foods and quick-service restaurants and started scanning products at the register. And in the ’90s, pay-at-the-pump was widely rolled out (although introduced in 1973, took a while to take off). Meanwhile, stores grew in size, and, when the new millennium began, change became a constant.
The fastest-moving changes to the industry over the past 25 years have been technology in various forms, both on-site and external advances that impact the path to market. The major challenge has been keeping up with technology without breaking the bank.
But you don’t have to be among the top retailers to make smart investments to help with payment collection, customer service, labor control, security, or inventory management. It’s evident in recent news of autonomous stores across the industry:
- In September, Golden Pantry, a 33-store chain in Georgia, announced the opening of an autonomous store.
- Loop Neighborhood, a chain of 50 stores in California, opened an autonomous store and is using more of that technology in other locations.
- Independent retailer Choice Markets in Denver opened a fully autonomous location on a college campus and created an autonomous mobile c-store.
Beyond that, c-store chains of all sizes have been adding ordering kiosks and self-check-out technology. And some have taken creative steps to make the change affordably, using their current point-of-sale system and simply turning it to face the customer for those who are comfortable checking themselves out. There’s also the question of customer service. How much should store associates interact with customers to maintain a connection and build loyalty?
At the same time, the changes continue. Do not assume the technology you are using today will be appropriate for tomorrow’s consumer; it is ever-progressing. Anyone who has been in the business a long time has seen how much credit-card acceptance has changed, from a manual slide machine with carbon credit-card slips that were mailed in every day to the tap-and-pay technology with almost instant payment of today.
This quick turn leaves some retailers hesitant to invest. Take ordering at the pump. For years, manufacturers tried to develop a simple and customer-friendly way to overcome the need to enter a store—kiosks, anyone?
Today, it seems ordering from a smartphone is the solution—no additional hardware on the fuel island at all. The message: Yes, the convenience space is ever-changing, but with the right planning, you can continue to evolve without super deep pockets.
One of the biggest questions going forward is how can artificial intelligence (AI) help in our space? Security, fraud protection, inventory, and marketing and promotions are just a few areas with potential. But it is early. Aggressive companies will be first adopters, but they also might lose their shirts; timid retailers may miss out by waiting too long.
My advice: Follow AI innovation closely, watching, learning, and researching until we reach the intersection of investment and potential. It’s there that the wise plant their flags with the goal of coming out with a return on investment.
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