By David Hochman. With additional reporting by William Brucella
Read any trade publication or Website that covers the retail industry and you’ll read about apps. A lot. Apps that let shoppers to select and purchase products all through their phones, all the while, providing a dynamic platform for stores and chains to engage more directly with consumers, add value to loyalty programs and mine valuable metadata from user activity.
While reading exciting announcements about agreements between stores and developers and upcoming releases of apps is one thing, demoing these apps from the perspective of the end-user is another matter entirely.
To that end, we sent William Brucella, a student at Monmouth University in New Jersey out into the field, armed only with an iPhone 4 with Verizon Wireless. His mission was simple: select a handful of c-stores near his hometown of Franklin Lakes, go onto the iOS app store and look for their mobile app offerings.
Brucella’s territory, the suburbs of Northern New Jersey is a rich testing ground, full of locations. In fact, The Bergen Record reported in December of 2013 that convenience store chains Wawa, Quick Chek, and 7-Eleven are targeting North Jersey for expansion. We picked five chains that had locations in New Jersey: Hess, 7-Eleven, Quick Chek, Wawa and Cumberland Farms. Here is what happened:
The Hess Station app, “Hess Express” was the first one Brucella downloaded. The app was simple enough to figure out, and pretty basic. One cool feature he cited was instead of just listing all the nearest Hess gas stations, the app also helps users find which one has the cheapest gas, which was convenient. The app also has some other interesting features on it such as coupons, app feedback, and lottery information.
“Immediately upon downloading the app I was rewarded with a free offer for Mountain dew Kickstart energy drink,” said Brucella . “I made my way to the nearest Hess station to redeem my free prize. Upon entering Hess, there were signs all over announcing the free drink with the download of the mobile app… so I was relieved at the prospect of not looking like a crazy person when trying to redeem the free drink. The only downside with this app was the time limit that begins once you activate the coupon. There are 15 minutes upon activating it to use the app, so the user should make sure Internet connection is strong and the line is short. Personally, I’m not a big fan of energy drinks or soda, so this deal was not personally appealing to me, but at the same time I’m a poor college kid, so if it’s free, it’s for me!”
Next up on the list was the 7-Eleven iPhone app, which Brucella reported as “very similar” to the Hess app however it was found to be much less convenient, almost to the point of annoyance. Brucella’s feedback was as follows: “First off, I had to create an account, which I really hate doing in general. Then, the store locator function took way too long and told me the nearest 7-Eleven was 42 minutes away…despite the fact that there are three within less than 15 minutes in different directions of where I was using the app.
“The app itself was constructed in a way that I did not find easy…although to be fair, other people might. Out of the four options, two were practically the same—telling me what’s available in the store. I can’t imagine too many mobile users need to look through a menu of five pictures to know what 7-Eleven sells,” Brucella said.
He continued, “The coupons were really anything special for the most part (I was really hoping for a deal on Slurpees). I decided to use the “Buy one cereal bar get one free.” Like Hess, this app also has a 15-minute time limit when activating the coupon. Unlike Hess, upon entering the store the Internet connection was lost and I spent more time waiting for the coupons to load at the register than actually shopping for what I needed (might be a good idea to screen shot them before entering the stores). The guy at the register didn’t seem to mind, but then again I was the only person in the store. Could you imagine if there was someone behind me? Needless to say I have no plans on using this app again.” Looks like some de-bugging is in order for 7-Eleven,” he said.
Our third demo was Quick Chek. A privately owned, Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based chain with 136 stores in New Jersey and New York. Quick Chek, at the time of this reporting (early February 2014) did not offer an iPhone app…but they do have a mobile texting service called Quick Check Mobile Fresh List, so we decided to have Brucella test that out.
“At first, I was not thrilled with this option. I assumed that once I signed up, I would be flooded with spam messages, but in fact, they actually kept their promise to only send up to four texts a month and the max of two texts in one week, so my inbox remained unflooded with Quick Check offers. It’s also really easy to stop getting the messages (you simply reply STOP) should you decide you don’t want the service anymore,” Brucella said.
In fact, Brucella reported that the benefits to the Quick Check service clearly placed it first on his list. He actually liked the text service because “you don’t have to download an app and waste phone memory, you simply text a number and automatically start receiving deals.”
The first offer from Quick Chek was for a breakfast deal on their newest item. The breakfast deal was buy one CinnaBreakfast Supreme get one free. “Upon entering the store I was delighted to learn that any purchase of CinnaBreakfast Supreme included a free coffee of any size. This was not a sandwich I would’ve tried on my own because it sounded and looked a little bit odd (CinnaBreakfast is basically bacon, egg and cheese on a cinnamon roll) but I was delightfully surprised that it was pretty good,” Brucella said. “Quick Check’s mobile texting service as well as the in-store experience made it my favorite of the convenience store, and I’m highly considering keeping the texting subscription.”
Brucella was “thoroughly disappointed” that Wawa, his personal favorite convenience store, had no mobile app. When he inquired by phone about the lack of an app, Brian Sloane, a senior customer service representative, said, “there is no particular reason behind this, but it is something that we have received a lot of feedback about recently.”
Brucella commented, “Maybe in the future we can get some delicious hoagie deals, but for right now well either have to go to one of the other stores, or charge up the iPhone, grease the wagon wheels and follow the setting sun and head west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the nearest Sheetz.”
We decided to add Cumberland Farms to the review list, mainly because they had what looked like a pretty useful app, Cumberland Farms SmartPay.
Brucella reported that there was no Cumberland Farms close to him; so for this reason, this app wasn’t very helpful to begin with. “At the same time, the app itself is not something I would use as it is solely for paying for gas. By linking your checking account to this app (another thing I’m not comfortable with), users can pay at the pump and save 10 cents on gas. In order to set up the account, you are told to go to a computer and create one online. For a convenient store app, this one looked pretty inconvenient.”
“As a full-time college student, convenience store apps are not something that I normally use….nor did I have any interest in prior to doing this assignment. I also don’t really know any other students who use them. Playing around on apps is something that is saved for in between classes or (sorry) in the bathroom. I enjoyed using the apps though, and looking for deals at nearby locations, but in the end I definitely preferred the Quick Check texting service to the actual mobile apps,” Brucella said.
He added, “What I wound up liking about the texting service was that I didn’t have to disclose my location, create an account, or periodically check for updates and deals. As a college student, social media and games always take priority for us, so these store apps can become pretty useless or easily forgotten.
“However, with Quick Chek texting service, I don’t have to actively seek out the deals, they are automatically sent to my phone and I simply repeat the code to the cashier. It was the easiest one to use as well because I didn’t rely on Internet connection nor did I have a time limit when using the coupon. For other people who are fast paced and on the move, the texting service may prove the most convenient and worthwhile,” he said.
David Hochman is a writer, PR and content development professional in Red Bank, N.J. Follow him on Twitter at @davehochman Will Brucella is a student at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J. If you want someone to test your apps and provide an unvarnished opinion, Brucella is available for hire.