Making a Connection With Your Customers

smartphoneConsumers spent six times as much time in retailer apps in December compared to a year earlier, showing that shopping and commerce is finally beginning to take off on mobile platforms.

By Barbara Brynko, Contributing Editor.

The numbers don’t lie. The U.S. officially crossed the threshold into the Brave New Digital World as the market penetration of smartphone users tipped over 50%, according to comScore Inc.’s recent report, “U.S. Digital Future in Focus 2013.”

More than 125 million U.S. consumers now clutch their iPhones, Android devices and BlackBerries wherever they go and choose to spend four out of every five of their mobile minutes using their apps, according to comScore.

Smartphone users have not only downloaded an average of more apps in 2012 (up 28% from 32-41 apps), they are spending about 10% more time using them than the mobile Web, according to recent statistics from ETC’s New Media Trend Watch USA.

To keep pace with the growing mobile marketplace, WilcoHess and Rotten Robbie are just two examples of convenience store chains nationwide that have jumped onto the mobile app bandwagon to offer their customers more than just the average Website.

“So far, the app has been very, very, very successful,” said Lindsay Harrison, marketing manager at WilcoHess, with more than 400 convenience stores, travel plazas, and restaurants in eight Southeastern states. The company first began exploring the mobile app space in spring 2011 and officially launched the WilcoHess on the Go mobile app in July 2012.

“One of the biggest reasons we decided to offer an app was to connect with our customers,” said Harrison. “In such a multifaceted market, we wanted to keep our customers on a personal basis.”

Reaching Customers
Likewise, Rotten Robbie, owned and operated by Robinson Oil Co., has a network of 34 stores in Northern California. The stores keep in touch with their customers via an app that was introduced about six months ago.

“Our decision to launch a mobile app was to reach our customers,” said Erin Graziosi, vice president of supply and transportation. “Our stores are in the Santa Clara area, so we’re right in the heart of Silicon Valley. These days, everyone has smartphones, and it just made sense to use an app as another avenue to reach our customers.”

Both the Rotten Robbie and WilcoHess c-store chains adopted their apps from OpenStore by GasBuddy, which can be customized according to a store’s individual brand. Available for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry devices, the free app is as easy for customers to use as it is for c-stores to implement and operate.

The app reaches out to customers with up-to-the-minute gas prices, alerts about in-house promotions, store locations, mobile coupons, games, and even forms to provide customer feedback as needed. The app works hand-in-hand with a dedicated Website for each store, with additional capabilities for Facebook and Twitter administration, and loyalty program integration.

More than 26 million motorists use GasBuddy mobile apps and Websites to find the most accurate gas prices nationwide, according to GasBuddy, which was acquired along with OpenStore (its mobile app service) by the Oil Price Information Service (OPIS) on March 1. The acquisition is expected to raise the bar on data offerings, since OPIS tracks and publishes spot prices for select refined products that range from gasoline to crude oil. GasBuddy expects its GasBuddy OpenStore solution to accelerate its continued success so far.

WilcoHess uses the full range of options on its WilcoHess on the Go app that constantly sports a fresh new look, Harrison said. She can also keep track of metrics by the minute and by the second. The store locator has been a big draw, she revealed, and customers can check out gas prices and amenities in each store location in advance.

“Several of our stores have a Dunkin’ Donuts, so customers can filter through the results to find a store with a Dunkin’ Donuts if they are interested,” Harrison said. “It’s been a big driver for the app.”

Other big draws include the social check-in feature for customers when they enter a store to get special deals and the gaming center (Spin and Win and Bubble Pop). Customers are eager to see their names at the top of the leader board as game winners, and she said she gets at least one phone call a day from customers who want to find out about how to get more credits.

Enhancing Brand Value
Recently, Retail Systems Research (RSR) released its “Impact of Mobile Retail Benchmark Report 2012,” which noted that “mobile’s primary ability is to enhance the overall value of a brand.” While the purpose of a company’s mobile strategy these days usually serves as an extension of the existing ecommerce offering, it can do much more.

“Yes, the app has really driven business,” Harrison said. “We look at number of redemption numbers on the coupons to see what coupons have been redeemed and what high- and low-margin items those coupons are for. It’s definitely a driver.” WilcoHess’ customers are getting used to seeing fresh updates on the app, and Harrison noted more changes are in the works for 2013.

“We’re consistently changing the app and shaping it according to what our customers want,” said Harrison, who reported that the feedback functionality has made a difference in WilcoHess’ response time to customer requests.

The WilcoHess feedback form spans the public, social and digital space, while providing positive and negative comments to store management. Recently, one customer commented on how a store display had been set up. “In less than 24 hours, we had fielded the comment from the customer to the store, and the display had been fixed,” Harrison said. “When we notified the customer about the fix, he was really surprised and said, ‘No business works like this, not this fast.’”

For the Rotten Robbie c-store network, Graziosi sees the mobile app providing a different set of metrics. “The return on investment isn’t immediately answerable,” she said. “The ROI is hard to measure at this point because it’s new, and you can’t tell if you’re getting new customers or whether these are the ones you’ve had all along.”
But there are challenges and opportunities in adopting the app, she added. “The nice thing about the app is that it establishes a base line to compare data in the future.”

Rotten Robbie has experimented with adding incentives to sign up for the mobile app (a mobile coupon for a free Snickers candy bar) and alerts for saving up to 10 cents per gallon using the Rotten Robbie Saver Club card.

“People seem to like it,” said Graziosi, pointing to the mobile app. “This is a time when the less people have in their wallets, the better they like it.” The mobile coupons on smartphones seem to be especially well-received, she said. Better yet, she sees more customers offering feedback through the app, which keeps the lines of communication open between Rotten Robbie and its customers.

For the Speedway c-store chain, which is owned by Marathon Petroleum Co., customer loyalty translates to thousands of app downloads, more than 100,000, according to recent estimates. Marxent Labs developed an app for Speedway that includes gas prices, a store locator, a tally of a customer’s loyalty program points to redeem a free promotion, and an added extra: a mobile payment option for Speedy Rewards Pay Card holders.

Mobile apps are paving the way for c-stores to reach their on-the-go customers wherever they roam. Customizing the customer experience can make mobile more of a digital lifeline between the store and the customer, an often-critical connection for maximizing loyalty and keeping them coming back for more.

“We make changes that our customers ask for,” Harrison said. “After all, at the end of the day, it’s really all about the customers.”

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