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The recent Empathica Consumer Insights Panel survey of more than 16,000 North American consumers showed that in the past three months, 43 percent of consumers indicated they spent less at convenience stores. Fifty-one percent spent the same, and only 6 percent spent more.
For the next three months, the outlook doesn't appear to be much better, with 44 percent anticipating spending less and 3 percent expecting to spend more.
So, how can convenience stores compete in an environment where consumers are intending to reduce their spending? Since relatively few c-stores can compete on price alone, customer connections and differentiated customer experiences are primary concerns, driving retailers to carefully listen to the "voice of the customer" and focus their efforts accordingly. Emotional connections, in particular, drive customer experiences with brands, transforming mere purchasers into committed brand advocates.
A merchant's ability to create and leverage personal connections directly impacts their ability to rise above the clamor of the marketplace and differentiate themselves from the competition. But many c-stores are struggling to keep up with consumers who live in the emerging world of "constant connectedness." Technology has given consumers the tools to forge instant connections with brands and with other users, to communicate good and bad experiences.
For instance, in a 2010 Empathica Consumer Insights Panel survey of more than 15,000 U.S. and Canadian consumers, one in three indicated they followed through with an online brand recommendation via a social network like Facebook or Twitter. Unless c-store retailers learn how to sufficiently navigate these communication channels, they will increasingly find themselves excluded from conversations that are essential for creating rich customer experiences and achieving bottom-line success.
It is still early, but consumers are beginning to use social media and mobile technologies as channels for forging and maintaining connections with their favorite brands, and for sharing brand-related conversations with the people in their online networks. In order to maximize the impact of their investments, c-store retailers will need to learn how to participate in these conversations. It involves looking at current practices and the experiences they offer customers. These are categorized in five primary steps.
Listen. Do you listen to your customers often enough and through the channels in which they prefer to communicate?
Understand. Do you have a clear understanding of the things that customers really value about their experiences with your brand, and know what drives loyalty?
Engage. Are your employees equipped with the right tools and information they need to positively impact the customer experience and to engage shoppers while they are in the store?
Nurture. Have you given your employees the tools they need to "save the sale" by understanding key elements of the shopping experience?
Mobilize. Are you creating consumer advocates and making it easy for them to influence other consumers via social media?
For c-store retailers, a constantly connected approach begins with embracing a more collaborative working culture that produces a higher service level for customers. Instead of relying on top-down collaborative strategies, mobile online interactions can be used to nurture relationships with customers.
There are many other effective strategies c-stores can use to participate in immediate, online conversations with customers as well. Going forward, it's important for stores to approach advances in mobile technology and social media as opportunities rather than threats.
Brian Jones is responsible for developing Empathica's grocery and consumer products businesses. His experience spans customer loyalty, data base analytics, market research, general management and business strategy. To reach Jones, visit www.empathica.com.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.