Convenience stores become high-tech in customer service

January 29, 2006|By ANDREW SCHOTZ


If customers spend money, why make them go inside the store to pay if they don't want to?

That might have been an offbeat idea years ago, but technology makes it a legitimate one now.

The rhetorical question came from a spokesman for a convenience store trade group, talking about two industry advances that have hit Washington County.

Both are at the new Sheetz on Longmeadow Road, north of Hagerstown, kitty-corner from the Maugans Avenue store it replaced.

The new store gives shoppers a chance to look at the menu and order food as they stand at the gas pumps.


Another advancement is on the pump itself: A slot that accepts cash.

Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, which is based in Alexandria, Va., said Sheetz is among the industry pioneers for both features.

A big technological advance for the AC&T convenience store chain has been ExxonMobil's Speedpass, Mark Fulton of AC&T said in a voice-mail message.

Customers use Speedpass wands at the pump to automatically pay for gas. The 1.5-inch wand runs on a radio transponder system, similar to an automatic pass for toll roads and bridges, the Speedpass Web site says.

Expenses automatically are deducted from customers' credit or check cards, but financial information is not stored in the Speedpass, the Web site says.

Speedpass also offers a vehicle window tag or a Timex watch with a Speedpass device instead of a key chain wand.

The system can be used inside the store, too, for other purchases.

Speed and ease

The object of a convenience store, naturally, is speed and ease, which these new features are intended to accomplish.

At the same time, though, accepting payment at the pump might cut into a gas station's opportunities to make money.

Lenard said gas always has been a low-profit item, compared to the sale of food and drinks inside the shop, which brings in more money for the owner.

"You only make a couple of cents a gallon on gas," he said.

Actually, the new setup at the Longmeadow Road store reflects Sheetz's redirected focus from a gas station with food and drinks to a food and drink shop that sells gas, company spokeswoman Monica Jones said.

The 6,000-square-foot Longmeadow Road branch, which opened Jan. 3, is modeled after a 10,000-square-foot prototype in Altoona, Pa.

The Altoona store has indoor and outdoor seating, just as the Longmeadow Road store does.

The new focus, in a sense, is a return to an old philosophy. Jones said Sheetz started in the 1950s and expanded as a store selling deli and dairy products.

The Sheetz chain added gas pumps in the mid-1970s, she said.

As part of a new emphasis on food service, the Longmeadow Road store has extra menu items, such as pizza, panini and quesadillas, said Dave Smith, a regional sales development manager for the chain.

Coffee, tea or ...

It also has a Sheetz Bros. Coffeez Espresso Bar, which invites an instant comparison to Starbucks or coffee shops of that ilk.

Gone are the days of two pots of coffee - regular and decaf. The new branch had 20 pots one recent day, lined up in two rows for self-service.

Marci Ostrom of Western Pennsylvania, a member of Sheetz's "opening team," which assists new branches, said the choices include latte, cappuccino, espresso, tea and all of the variations that go with them.

Drinks can be prepared hot, iced or frozen. Smoothies are sold, too.

For clerks, the hardest part is learning the recipes, but it becomes second nature, said Ostrom, a coffee specialist on the opening team.

The National Association of Convenience Stores, on its Web site, reports that quick-service restaurants, including gas stations with menus, have identified coffee as one of the top items for growth. The NACS cites the National Restaurant Association as its source.

The NACS Web site also lists as services growing at convenience stores: money orders (90.6 percent), car washes (18.4 percent), customer seating in the store (13.6 percent) and drive-through windows (1.6 percent).

The Longmeadow Road Sheetz branch has a car wash.

Pay-at-the-pump benefits

Pay-cash-at-the-pump convenience was new for a few customers interviewed at the branch 10 days ago.

A cash acceptor rejected one of Pam Nebels' bills, so she had to get a crisper one.

"This is the first one I've seen," said Nebels, who said she moved from Arizona to Washington County last May for a job at Fort Detrick in neighboring Frederick County, Md.

Jean Freeman of Hagerstown also needed a few tries before she found a bill the machine wouldn't spit back at her. But she indicated she didn't mind; she was pleased when it worked.

Paying outside keeps the line inside a little shorter, she said.

While stores are aiming for service with that new advance, NACS' Lenard said, they are deriving another benefit: no more gas theft.

With pumps accepting cash as well as credit and debit cards, there's nothing to prevent every customer from paying in advance, he said.

"Some stores lose $400 a week," Lenard said.

Grocery stores also are trying new ways to shorten customers' shopping trips and make them easier, said Tracy Pawelski, a spokeswoman for Martin's Food Markets and Giant Food Stores.

One is a hand-held device that customers in the card clubs carry through the store, allowing them to scan, buy and bag items as they shop, Pawelski said.

She said another pilot program lets customers place deli orders at a kiosk and pick up the orders at their convenience a short time later.

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