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Mobile opportunities top retailer interest, with loyalty, social media close behind.

By  Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Content Development Coordinator

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The more high-tech goes mainstream,the more retailers seethemselves “phoning it in.”Not in the sense of putting their businesseson autopilot, but literally pickingup a smartphone and dialing up computer-generated reports, changing pricesigns or sending electronic coupons topassing motorists.

Knowledge may be power (if youknow how to use it), but for a workforceincreasingly used to instant information,the focus is as much about when as itis about what. In an outreach to morethan a dozen retailers and suppliers, CSPmagazine identifi ed fi ve “themes” thatbubbled up as top technology concerns:

  1. Mobility—internal uses, marketingand customer payment
  2. Loyalty
  3. Social media
  4. Business intelligence
  5. Connectivity

A review of these themes is only partof this year’s annual technology wrapup.Equally engaging are perspectives onmobile payment and industry standardsfrom two top industry tech names, as wellas updated original research on cash-handlingbehavior among c-store operators.

The concept of mobility as it applies toc-store technology can mean many things.Certainly, the hub of the idea is the smartphoneor tablet device, which gives theuser the ability to do a number of onlineactions. Of these activities, retailers seemfocused on three: marketing, customerpayment and internal communications.

While all three have yet to mature interms of specifi c standards and widespreadacceptance, retailers are tracking technologicaladvancements and positioningthemselves to act—with some alreadypulling the trigger.

Mobile Marketing

Issuing smartphone apps to build relationshipsdirectly with consumers isprobably the No. 1 technology priorityamong retailers. Just ask 7-Eleven. Itreleased an app in February, launchingit on Apple and Android operating systemsand offering it for free at the AppleApp Store and Google Play for Android.

The app started with a store-locationfinder, mobile coupons, select productsand news on store events and specials.The Dallas-based c-store giant selectedthe initial capabilities based on commentsreceived from 7-Eleven Facebook fans,with mobile couponing the top request.

An update subsequently added theability to “check in” to stores with theFoursquare social-media app. Frequent7-Eleven visitors can earn a Foursquare“mayorship” of their favorite store.

In developing its app, 7-Eleven solicitedfeedback from the public, most recentlytraveling to the 2013 South by Southwest(SXSW) festival and conferences. In acoordinated competition held there, thewinning idea allowed regular cellphoneusers to interact with the app via textmessaging. Other top ideas included addingmobile payment capabilities, morecoupons, individual store reviews, amembership loyalty program, nutritionalinformation and local gas prices.

“We looked at how people shop ourstores and patterned the app to improvetheir 7-Eleven experience,” said JesusDelgado-Jenkins, 7-Eleven executive vicepresident of merchandising, marketing,logistics and innovation, in a news release.“It’s all about building convenience onconvenience, and we continue to want tohear what capabilities customers wouldlike to see in the future.”

Another new feature identifi es storesthat meet specifi ed convenience needs. Filtersfor key products and services work inconjunction with the 7-Eleven app’s storelocator, so users can tailor store results byselecting fi lters, such as chicken, pizza, eggrolls, beer, wine, Redbox, lottery, ATM,fuel, diesel, propane and whether the storeaccepts specifi c food stamps.

But 7-Eleven is relatively new tothe game. Rutter’s president and CEOScott Hartman, known as an earlyadopter, was one of the first to jumpinto dynamic websites and mobile appsabout four years ago, having partneredwith Brooklyn Park, Minn.-based Gas-Buddy and its OpenStore program.Customers can use the app or visit thewebsite to fi nd locations, review productsor fi nd promotions.

Hartman says his 57-site, York, Pa.-based company is reaching “a demographicthat every c-store chain covets”and describes the feedback tools as“amazing.” The interaction and engagementthat results has become part of thechain’s brand identity, Hartman says.

Ultimately, retailers and supplierssay the greater treasure trove wouldbe giving motorists tempting offers asthey drive by. “Don’t expect all successstories as the industry goes down thispath,” Hartman says. “But those whounderstand it will begin to separate fromthe pack in just one more way with thecustomers we all want.”

The idea of mobility interweaves withother hot technology topics. In the caseof mobile marketing, the thread leadsto themes of loyalty and business intelligence.The logic extends to developingrelevant, enticing offers to customersbased on individual buying history.

“That’s when we get into much morepersonal, customer-specifi c intelligence,”says Carson Kuehne, chief innovationsoffi cer for Verge Retail, Henderson, N.C.“It leads … to having an understandingof each person and the couponsand offers [that may turn] a Saturdaycustomer … into a weekday customer.”Albemarle Oil Co. (ALCO), Albemarle,N.C., recently launched an appthrough Verge for its 23-store chain.“We’re excited about the ALCO smartphoneapp and the opportunities Verge’stechnology presents for enhancing ourcustomer experience and supporting thegrowth of our brand,” said Ron Lattimer,the company’s operations manager, ina release.

Mobile Payment

The second mobility concept that retailersseem focused on is payment. Whileno one disagrees that paying for goodswith a smartphone could be convenientfor many customers, the central issue isfi nancial. How will retailers benefi t?

“How do you incorporate mobilepayment in a way, [for instance], thatyou’re saving on credit-card fees?” saysJenny Bullard, CIO of Flash Foods,Waycross Ga. “[And] we don’t want toadd cost.”

The 172-store Flash Foods chain is inthe process of implementing a mobileapp, one that’s tied to its loyalty program.The connection will process transactionsvia its ACH-debit system, whichbypasses credit-card processors and, inturn, avoids high transaction fees.

“One of the challenges is solutionstied to the major credit-card brands[that] in the end aren’t offering savingsto the retailer,” says Drew Mize, COO ofThe Pinnacle Corp., Arlington, Texas.

“There’s no incentive for retailersto adopt it beyond it being a defensivemeasure. They don’t want to lose customers.”

Multiple players—PayPal, Google,ISIS—have a stake in the so-called“mobile wallet” game, with retailerssuch as Bullard eager to see how thingsplay out. Standards in technology alsoneed to fi rm up, with the chip-in-phonetechnology of near-field communications(NFC) along with bar codes onsmartphone screens getting buzz.

“There are many solutions emerging,each using completely different technicalapproaches,” Mize says. “It’s diffi cult togo all in when no one knows who’s goingto win.”

Yet despite the uncertainty, the goalis compelling. Jason Groff, director ofpetroleum and convenience, global solutionmarketing, for NCR Corp., Duluth,Ga., says such a transaction can startwith a quick response (QR) code on thepump. Customers can scan the postagestamp-size bar code, download the appand initiate the purchase. At the sametime, retailers can communicate promotionsthat customers can buy. Groffsays it gives customers control over thefueling experience.

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