Pump Up the (Sales) Volume

Retailers hope screens at the pump move customers toward more purchases.

By  Kelly Kurt, Freelance writer

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LCDs placed atop fuel dispensers at some very busy convenience stores are urging customers to pump up while they pump gas.

The 30-second spots that began airing last spring feature celebrity trainers from Exercise TV enthusiastically coaching customers to not just stand there during their fill-up but to also do lunges and squats next to their vehicles.

While retailers who have aired the workouts via the digital video network PumpTop TV aren’t looking to turn fuel islands into fitness centers, their goal is to get customers moving. They want them to walk—right through the c-store door.

“It’s all about driving customers from the forecourt to inside the convenience store,” says PumpTop TV’s Francois Huynh, vice president of retail development for the network, operated by Irvine, Calif.-based AdtekMedia.

Retailers are deploying flat-screen digital video screens at the pump in hopes that gas-only customers will be lured inside after watching a mix of content and targeted advertising.

Digital place-based video is turning up across all sorts of establishments, giving weather forecasts in elevators, doling out health tips at the doctor’s office, touting new products at the grocery store.

And you’ll likely find someone watching them. Seventy percent of Americans ages 12 and older—an estimated 181 million people—reported seeing a digital video screen in a public venue in the previous month, according to an Arbitron Inc. survey conducted earlier this year.

“When you have 70% of the U.S. population doing anything, that’s a big deal,” says Diane Williams, senior media research analyst for Columbia, Md.-based Arbitron, a media and marketing research firm. “This is the largest new stream of ad inventory since the Internet.”

Gas Station TV (GSTV), a digitalvideo network based in Birmingham, Mich., says Nielsen Media Research found more than 26 million people each month view its screens at 1,100 locations in more than 100 U.S. designated market areas.

“We’ve had really exponential growth,” says David Leider, CEO of the four-year-old network. “People are really enjoying the experience. Through the research, people say it made the gas retailing experience better.”

A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE

Screens debuted at the pump more than a decade ago, but the dot-com bust of 2001 temporarily sapped the technology’s momentum, says NACS spokesman Jeff Lenard.

Back then, there was talk of being able to access e-mail at the pump, and concern over how much time one might spend surfing at the fuel island, he says. Retailers generally rejected that idea but still saw the screens as a way to get fuelonly customers inside their stores.

“Now it’s more about how can you entertain, and how can entertainment sell,” Lenard says.

While the audience at the pump is captive (literally tethered by the dispenser hose), whether or not they are captivated may be what decides the success of fuel-island TV, he says.

 “If it doesn’t feel enjoyable to them or somehow beneficial to them, they’ll be in charge of the content by going somewhere where that content isn’t,” Lenard says. “That’s the thing you’ll want to avoid. You’ll never know why your volume is down.”

Major digital-network providers agree that the right content mix is essential. Leider says GSTV has worked to hone its 4.5- to 5-minute loop, which is 65% content and 35% advertising. It features news from NBC, sports from ESPN, local AccuWeather forecasts, celebrity buzz and original programming.

PumpTop TV’s 16-inch-by-9-inch screens can be split, so a brief news story might appear in text on one side of the screen while an advertisement runs on the other half. The result is almost a 50-50 split between content and advertising.

“We try to make the loop very entertaining,” Huynh says, citing the network’s mix of entertainment news, lifestyle tips, weather and traffic alerts. “You would lose the audience if you’re just bombard- ing them with advertising.”

National advertising from the likes of car makers, beverage firms, insurance companies and cell-phone companies dominate much of the ad space on these loops. Retailers typically receive a few segments in each loop to pitch their own promotions. Day-parting allows them to sync their ads to drive times or specific times of day.

Determining the true success of pump screens is difficult. While some limited studies suggest some lift in inside sales, effectiveness seems to depend on markets, individual sites and total demographics.

That said, GSTV, whose network is audited at the pump independently by Nielsen, says the researcher found 85% of viewers want to watch it again, 78% said it made the fueling experience better and up to 77% could recall an ad spot they had seen there.

PumpTop TV screens, found at nearly 700 U.S. gas stations, have generated overall sales lifts of 13% to 42%, Huynh says. Lottery advertising, in particular, is a big driver for customers at these locations, he says. “When you see a $150 million jackpot [advertised], you go inside and buy,” he says.

SCREEN TEST

More than three years ago, Parent Petroleum Co. vice president Mark Potaczek leapt at the chance to bring PumpTop TV screens to nearly 45 stations served or operated by the St. Charles, Ill.-based jobber. Those stores saw a minimum of 10% to 15% sales lift, he says. The benefit of the screens appears to be twofold. “We noticed that the typical $10 to $15 purchaser who usually only made a partial fill was suddenly dis tracted at the pump watching the news. They were filling up instead of making partial purchases,” Potaczek says.

The screens also appear to turn gasonly customers into c-store customers in many cases because they “enable the retailer to customize some ads for that day or that time period to give the consumer a strong incentive to come inside,” he says.

The categories that have experienced the biggest sales boosts have been immediate consumables and prepackaged snack items, especially ones advertised on the screens as part of a special.

“The most successful promotions seem to be those for prepared foods [such as] hot dogs, sandwiches and fresh-baked goods, especially when combined with a drink at a reduced price,” Potaczek says.

More affluent customers seem more attracted to the screens overall, and some have told him that they like to be entertained and informed while fueling. “Many have no intention of going into the store,” he says, but the TVs provide them with a benefit of feeling like they are multitasking. They like a location with screens, for example, because they can catch up on the news while fueling.

PumpTop TV tries to make it easy for retailers to update their ads, Huynh says. The retailer can upload either its own ads or vendor-created ads to PumpTop TV, or log into a site where they can choose ad templates. Philadelphia-based Sunoco Inc. began testing GSTV two years ago in some of its top markets. GSTV screens are installed at 100 of Sunoco’s approximately 4,700 locations.

“We’re always looking for new and innovative ways to reach our cus- tomers, and GSTV is one of the variety of ways we do that,” says Sunoco spokesman Joe McGinn.

Sunoco can’t say, however, that the screens are responsible for any increase in sales. “It’s not driving people away. But I can’t say how much value it adds. It’s not an easy correlation because of some of the other things we’re doing that are driving sales,” says McGinn, pointing to a new rewards program and other promotions.

GSTV also has partnerships with other major oil companies, including BP, Chevron, Murphy USA and Marathon’s Speedway. By year’s end, the network plans to grow by another 100 to 125 locations.

When it comes to place-based video overall, Arbitron’s survey found the advertising medium to be both engaging and persuasive. Nearly half of those who noticed the screens in the previous month specifically remembered an ad they had seen. Nearly one in five of those who saw an ad made an unplanned purchase after seeing an item featured on the screen.

Arbitron estimates that 43 million teens and adults viewed video screens at the pump in a single month. “People will think, ‘Why hasn’t this (place-based video) taken off yet?’ ” says Williams of Arbitron. “But it’s really still so new. Keep in mind the Internet was around for almost 10 years before it started getting really organized and becoming a line item on a media buy.”

When it comes to return on investment, retailers with qualifying high-volume stores might find it costs nothing to try out the screens. Both Gas Station TV and PumpTop TV provide the screens and equipment at no cost to stations that meet certain criteria, such as having high-volume locations in important advertising markets. The networks make their money off the national advertising. Both networks also offer retailers who don’t meet such criteria the chance to purchase the equipment.

Potaczek says the retailers served by his company at first wanted to try the screens because they were eager to offer the new technology they saw being employed at locations operated by major petroleum companies.

“Now,” he says, “the new dealers we sign up, the first question they ask is, ‘Can we get that PumpTop TV?’ ”  

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