By Frank Beard
ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The right customer experience is an essential component of the perfect pit stop—especially at the pumps.
Nearly 40 million Americans fill up their vehicles every day, and there’s tremendous opportunity to bring these consumers into the store where they can purchase higher-margin products. But according to a recent NACS survey, only 48% reported going into the store the last time they purchased fuel.
That’s why the forecourt matters. The right experience at the pumps can draw customers inside, and it can also improve brand reputations by influencing what’s said and shared online.
Here are four strategies.
(1) Consider the Canopy. As Mike Zahajko of CAF told NACS Magazine in September 2016, “What happens on the outside is the handshake—the first hand that goes out to welcome someone to come into the store.”
One way to extend that handshake is with a modern canopy and well-stocked amenities. It sets the stage for the entire customer experience.
Yesterday’s canopies were often utilitarian, but today’s leading brands carefully consider their design. A modern, attractive, and unique canopy can stand out from the road and help combat the gas penalty—the perception that food and other products are of a lower quality due to the presence of fuel pumps.
At QuikTrip’s “Gen 3” locations, the attractive brown brick and black accent bands on the stores are extended to the canopy pillars. Recessed lighting reduces the glare on windshields while keeping the exterior feeling safe and well-lit—but not too bright. This strategy also helped QuikTrip earn the 4th-highest rating for outdoor lighting on GasBuddy’s Q2 2017 Report Card.
Underneath the canopy, keep an eye on the amenities. Wiper fluid, paper towels, squeegees—if ignored and neglected, they can detract from an otherwise great experience. Customers may even complain about it online.
“Windshield washer fluid basin is often empty, and dirty if it contains any fluid,” reads a recent review on the GasBuddy app. “Sponge/squeegee is frequently worn.”
(2) Keep It Clean. “I won’t eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms,” wrote Anthony Bourdain in his bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential. As I’ve explained before, bad restrooms are bad for business.
But it’s not just the restrooms. Loose trash, full bins, shiny oil spots, and pumps that leave customers wishing they’d brought hand sanitizer are unlikely to inspire confidence in a store’s culinary fare—or any of its products and services.
“All trash cans out by the pumps were overflowing,” reads a review on GasBuddy. “Trash was blowing out of them all over the parking lot. All window washing bins were dry as a bone with trash in them as well.”
These details are sometimes overlooked when stores are busy, but they matter. Consumers expect cleanliness. That’s why it’s meaningful to me, as a consumer, when I see QuikTrip employees powerwashing oil spots from the parking lot—and when stores like HyVee Gas and Kwik Trip provide hand sanitizer next to the pumps.
(3) Promote Your Store’s Products. With an average fueling time of 2-3 minutes, convenience stores have an opportunity to make the case for why customers should come inside.
Twice Daily recently partnered with ESSTAR to create an under-the-counter rack for ESSTAR’s “Krista’s Healthy On The Go” line of snacks. Rather than leave its success up to chance, Twice Daily plays a promotional video at the pumps.
“Hey, hey you,” says Krista Anderson on the video, tapping her finger at the screen. “Healthy food in a convenience store sound crazy? Well, not here!” She then explains the merchandising rack before inviting customers to “follow me inside.”
As I’ve written before, it’s important to promote the full range of your products. If you only promote a limited number, then you may limit who comes inside.
(4) Add a customer service element. Although gas station pumps are self-serve—unless you’re located in Oregon or New Jersey—there are still opportunities to enhance the experience with customer service.
When issues arise, it’s important that employees are trained and empowered to handle them appropriately. This can improve your brand’s reputation when customers write online reviews.
“I was having problems with the pump and the clerk came out and he fixed it in like two seconds,” writes one GasBuddy user in a station review. “He was so nice about it and I really appreciated that.”
Some stores have gone even further with customer service. The HyVee Gas in Ankeny, IA utilizes FuelCall: a touchpad from Inclusion Solutions that allows handicapped customers to press a button for assistance. Not only does this help secure ADA compliance, but it shows that HyVee cares about their customers.
Frank Beard is a regular NACS Daily contributor who has traveled to more than 1,000 convenience stores in 24 states. He raised awareness of the industry's healthful food options with his "30 Days of Gas Station Food" experiment, and he's an analyst/evangelist for convenience store and retail trends at GasBuddy. Follow Frank on Twitter at @FrankBeard.