A version of this article was first published on the Convenience Store News blog.
Omnichannel integration is a top priority for convenience retailers all over the globe.
The big-picture vision is to make it easy and seamless for people to shop in whatever ways they choose. That could mean staying in your car for a drive-thru-only experience, using an app to have a delivery driver bring food to your house, or walking into a store and grabbing a seltzer water and some pistachios on your evening commute.
Convenience store companies generally want to create a journey that is so simple, their customers hardly notice how it all came together. At times, however, there is the potential for apps, flatscreens, touchless vending machines and the like to make things more cluttered and confusing, not less.
Digital solutions have a real impact on physical space. When delivery drivers are standing in line to pick up orders, this can annoy those coffee-sipping regulars who like to stand at the cash wrap swapping jokes with your cashiers. It would be just as bothersome if customers lining up for scan-and-go stations or touchless vending machines were to block the aisles. And does a migraine sufferer who had a miserable day really want to see a video screen blaring ads as she pumps her gas, with no way to opt out of that experience? Probably not.
Here are a few tips for taking a more mindful approach to omnichannel integration:
Ramp Up Collaboration
As you pursue your strategy, consider ramping up collaboration among all parties involved in the design, branding, operations and management of your stores — not just the c-suite, but also your in-house and third-party experts in areas such as data science, technology and foodservice.
Imagine a technologist at one of those meetings describing a nifty new approach to combating the labor shortage with cashierless checkout. That is all fine and good, but your design and branding team may point out the need to preserve the traditional “neighborhood feel” and human touch at that location as well. Store designers are getting better and better at using lighting, signage and merchandising to smooth some of the rough edges caused by technology programs.
Likewise, your architecture and engineering (AE) experts, after listening to a vendor rhapsodize about a new automated system for contactless dispensing of app-ordered meals to go, will want to ask hard questions about the space requirements. The AE firm could provide practical ideas for clawing back the square footage you might need for that initiative, perhaps by taking more compact and efficient approaches to mechanical engineering or refrigeration elsewhere in the store.
By including more expert voices in your planning and discussions, you stand to gain a clearer picture of what is possible in everything from aesthetics to pedestrian flow to the capex budget in the next fiscal year.
"Future of c-stores” think pieces can be thrilling to read, in much the same way as new Ford or BMW concept cars can be fun to ogle at major auto shows. But for most of us, a turbocharged Batmobile just won’t work for schlepping the kids to and from soccer practice.
It’s why we encourage our c-store clients to imagine a Venn diagram with two converging circles: one labeled “Enduring Principles of Site and Store Design;” the other tagged as “Emerging Technologies, Trends and Opportunities.” The goal is to live where those two circles converge.
Consider it a red flag if the discussion of where your stores could be headed starts to feel disconnected from the industry’s roots, the realities of the marketplace, and what has worked in the past.
For example, some form of cashierless checkout like Scan-and-Go may be viable for some of your stores. But this is a far cry from the notion that all c-stores will be fully cashierless any day now, or that driverless cars are on the cusp of rendering fueling stations and parking lots utterly useless.
Stay on Top of New Trends
None of this is to suggest that futuristic daydreaming has no place. Clearly, today’s c-store operators need to look for ways to gain a competitive edge by beating their competitors to emerging opportunities.
One example here is the rise of third-party micro-fulfillment center (MFC) companies such as Israel-based startup Fabric, which already uses robot-run MFCs to serve multiple convenience stores, grocers and drugstore chains within a designated radius, allowing them to run lean-and-mean, rapidly restocked locations.
We are working with several c-store operators that are interested in optimizing square footage by taking advantage of such new approaches for the management of prepared food, grocery and alcohol inventory.
MFCs once would have been viewed as wild-eyed conjecture, but this market could be worth about $10 billion by 2026, according to some projections.
With respect to sites, a growing number of convenience operators clearly are beginning to incorporate curbside pickup into their planned and existing stores, and so the parking lot is changing, even if driverless cars never live up to the hype.
In other words, c-stores really do need to consider the effects of emerging trends on site logistics and the customer journey: Where will those cubbies for online pickup orders be placed in the store? How much square footage will they require? How will they affect the pedestrian flow throughout the building?
Mindful approaches to site and store design can help you answer such questions, harmonize the customer experience, and propel your growth.
Joseph Bona is founding partner and president of Bona Design Lab, which has elevated the retail experience on behalf of convenience store clients such as Shell Select, Alltown, Migrolino (Switzerland), Ipiranga (Brazil) and Adnoc Oasis (UAE). He can be reached at email@example.com.
This is the first of a five-part series for Convenience Store News.