Access to customers is biggest driver in convenience retail, says Sabine Benoit

Access to customers is the key driver of convenience and forecourt retailing success, according to Professor Sabine Benoit of the Surrey Business School at the University of Surrey.

“In my view it’s all about access,” she says. “The more access that retailers have to customers, the easier it will be to know their state of mind and decision making processes.”

It’s an informed viewpoint. Not only does Benoit have a background in academia, she is also chair of the Competence Center for on-the-go Consumption, a body established and funded by the leading European wholesaler Lekkerland in 2007. Benoit is the ‘face’ of the Competence Center, which is focused on convenience and marketing, and is backed by an advisory board of 11 members representing leading convenience brands including Unilever, Nestle, Mars, Wrigley and Red Bull among others.

While Lekkerland can draw on the Competence Center’s research for commercial advantage, Benoit is able to share her academic research via presentations etc.

“Lekkerland wants to support the convenience industry in Europe. The strategic aim of the Competence Center is retail enablement,” she says.

In that vein, Benoit has recently presented at the ACS/PRA Forecourt Conference on the topic of technology and digital services in forecourts and c-stores.

Delegates at the event listed their top five digital priorities. They were:

• Loyalty and customer engagement/securing the business/ enhancing sales

• Digital operating systems - make the business more efficient

• In-store communication – engage customers - enhance their experience

• Location-based services – help customers find you and your product – make it easier

• Queue management – make the shopping experience faster

According to Benoit, those technologies are currently top of mind for convenience and forecourt operators. Their drive to increase loyalty and shopper engagement boils back down to her point about access. “Stores are really trying to foster personal services because it is hard for them to differentiate with their assortments. Therefore, they are trying in other ways such as being quicker or more personable,” Benoit says.

The online giant Amazon has access in the bag, she maintains. “Prime is all about access and is hugely successful,” she says. Benoit highlights the penetration of Prime in the US. In households where the annual income is $150,000.00, 70% are Prime members. Even in lower income households - those with an annual income below $25,000.00 - one third (36%) are Prime members. Further, Prime members spend on average $2,500.00 a year, five times the amount spent by a non-Prime member.

From the consumer point of view, Benoit’s research has revealed three different needs that technology can provide: faster, easier and cheaper.

She cites Jaguar’s collaboration with petrol stations for in-car payment as an example of faster and more convenient shopping. The technology would have huge appeal in the US where there are big issues regarding card data theft, Benoit adds. “If car companies collaborate with petrol stations to make the payment process easier and faster that’s really going to be state of the art in 10 years,” she states.

A second example of a new technology assisting faster and more convenient shopping is the app Aisle 411, which offers a ‘Google Maps type service for aisle search’ and is particularly relevant in larger stores.

A similar concept is offered by Ubamarket in the UK, although effort is required in terms of listing all the product locations within the app.

“It’s more for big stores but customers really appreciate that they don’t need to ask a staff member or run around for a product,” Benoit says.

While apps like Aisle 411 do not currently offer product recognition, it would be logical next step, Benoit says.

This technology could have more relevance outside of the grocery sector, she adds. Within DIY, for example, a photo detection app could help shoppers locate a spare part for a product that needs to be replaced, for example. “An app like that would make it much easier and be competitive to online,” she explains.

Benoit also checks Shell’s TapUp refuelling app, trialled in the Netherlands, as a new technology that is facilitating purchasing and that such technologies have huge future potential for fuel delivery.

“I think that in future it will become a fully automated subscription service and that wherever I am, when the app can see that my tank is half full, my car will be refueled. Technology in the car will get better and more services around the car will be developed,” she adds.

Another neat technology is NearSt, an app designed to compete against Amazon by listing all the products stocked within a local community, which shoppers could either buy online with Amazon for next day delivery or walk five minutes and purchase at their local store. “It’s not taken off yet and I’m unsure if ever it will because effort wise it’s really hard to get off the ground but I think the idea is brilliant,” she says.

An example of a technology helping consumers buy more cheaply is Snapcart, a Southeast Asia-based mobile application that gives rewards and cash-back to shoppers when they snap a photo of their grocery receipts. It also provides real-time shopper and consumer insights for brands and retailers ranging from price and promotion tracking to basket analytics.

As to the retailers who are winning with regard to new technologies and meeting customer needs, Benoit can’t but mention Amazon.

“It’s an obvious choice,” she says, “but Amazon is absolutely amazing if you look closely at its wide portfolio of offerings.” Benoit reports she recently challenged her students to look at Amazon’s offer, which today spans Marketplace, Amazon Web Services, Prime, Alexa and now Whole Foods Market. “It’s exactly my point about access - like Google or Apple, Amazon sucks you into an eco system where everything becomes Amazon. If you are a Prime member, for example, you try to buy everything on Amazon. It’s not very good for competition and it’s a bit scary how big and dominant they are but they are impressive.”

In terms of food, Benoit admits to being a “big fan” of M&S Simply Food. “They cover such a lot of the pain points today and help people to eat healthily despite not having much time. They understand that people have different shopping situations and that they require different types of products. Food wise, M&S Simply Food is really impressive and I like shopping there in terms of convenience,” she says.

Dean & DeLuca in the US also stands out for Benoit for putting food - either dine in or take away - at the heart of the offer and combining grocery shopping with retail services.

As to future trends, opinion on technologies such as contactless payment is divided across markets, Benoit states. In the UK, contactless payment is now widely accepted; although cash is still king in Germany.

Payment thresholds are likely to be raised and accompanied by further authentication such as fingerprint technology, she adds. While pay at pump technology will increase on the forecourt, it will require significant investment, Benoit states. However, fears that consumers will not go into the store once pay at pump is available are unfounded. That would imply impulse buying is massive, which is not the case according to the studies she conducted.

But those sites that don’t adopt the technology will be left behind, she cautions.

Learn more about Sabine at her website www.sabinebenoit.com

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