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    Making the Grade

    Are c-stores effectively using the Web as a marketing tool? CSNews talks to experts who evaluate retailer Web sites

    By D. Gail Fleenor

    The Internet has become a powerful and accepted way to reach consumers, and companies both large and small are offering Web sites packed with information, specials and online shopping. But while the convenience store industry has joined this high-tech quest for shoppers, are they communicating successfully online? Are c-store Web sites effectively marketing to current and potential customers? And does online shopping work on c-store Web sites, or is it an unnecessary service?

    To answer these questions, Convenience Store News examined a sample of c-store Web sites and asked Internet consultants to tell us what works on these sites from the consumer's point of view, and what does not. Our Web experts also provided suggestions for improving the Web sites, as well as online shopping.

    Consultants for this article include:

    -- Lauren Freedman, president of The E-tailing Group, a shopper-centric, e-commerce consulting firm based in Chicago; and Kylee Magno, senior analyst at The E-tailing Group.

    -- Tamara Adlin, founder/principal of Adlin Inc., a customer experience consulting company located in Seattle, and co-author of "The Persona Lifecycle: Keeping People in Mind Throughout Product Design."

    The following list of c-store sites, in alphabetical order, includes a description of the Web site along with the consultant comments:

    BP America Inc., ampm

    www.ampm.com Part of BP America, based in La Palma, Calif., the ampm Web site offers humor, games, trivia and information. A tab at the top of the page called "Play Room" leads to two games -- "What's The Deal" features the latest specials, while "Get To Know ampm" includes trivia, nutrition and "Talk To Us," which wasn't working at presstime. Follow the "Food and Drink" tab to "Coffee" and read "Morning Ritual" for a laugh, and "Fountain" includes a mixology of fountain drink recipes.

    Tamara Adlin: "The navigation is good and simple. This is a nice, clean, basic site. It works."

    E-Z Mart Stores Inc.

    www.ezmart.com Texarkana, Texas-based E-Z Mart's home page opens with animation, showing an E-Z Mart store open during the day and then surrounded by night. The more than 300-unit chain's page includes "What's New," displaying photos of its new store design and image upgrade. Click on "Virtual Store" and browse an E-Z Mart interior.

    Adlin: "This site includes value propositions and differentiators (why it's worth a customer's time to come to your site, and how your site offers unique experiences, products, etc.) on the first page, which is great."

    Kwik Trip Inc.

    www.kwiktrip.com Based in La Crosse, Wis., Kwik Trip's home page featuring a free doughnut with coffee special, at presstime. "The Kids Club" tab leads to pictures for kids to color and information on the Milk Moover's Kids Club. At "Just 4 You," visitors can register for mailings and download coupons. "Eats & Drinks" includes nutritional information, a milk tour of Kwik Trip's dairy and Kwik N' Lows -- items "priced as low as the grocery store every day." Additionally, Kwik Trip's online shopping features gas and gift cards, and car wash coupon books. Contact information includes e-mail addresses for employees in all areas of the company, from bakery to Web site errors.

    Lauren Freedman/Kylee Magno: "Excellent front-and-center promotion of convenience store offerings. Well- branded and the Web site has a clean, easy-to-navigate format."

    7-Eleven Inc.

    www.7-eleven.com The home page of the largest convenience store chain features a photo of 7-Eleven's new "Chicken Bite," at presstime. The site's store locator allows potential customers to select options, such as gas, check cashing and money orders to see which stores offer these services. Also, a tab for products and services includes food-to-go options and a complete line of beverages. Lottery results are also available, as well as information on new items.

    Adlin: "7-Eleven is a huge brand and, therefore, I had big expectations . . . the site is mostly corporate."

    Sheetz Inc.

    www.sheetz.com Sheetz, based in Altoona, Pa., has a fun site with interesting animation and bright colors. The home page always features a special, such as the "Chick Magnet" (a grilled chicken sub). Categories to click on include, "What's a Sheetz?" "Specialty Coffeez?" and "Made-to-Order Food," which includes a takeout menu, nutritional information and a fax menu. Changing spots along the bottom of the home page direct consumers to shop online for gift cards; join Sheetz's mailing list; deli specials; the Sheetz credit card; a travel planner, featuring driving directions; and "How do you overflow into our world?" When clicking on this last option, another Web page opens, showing a place to "log in, upload and interact." Geared toward teens and early 20-somethings, the page offers videos and photos uploaded from Web visitors. The page also will offer music, games and e-cards, all of which were under construction at presstime.

    Adlin: "This is a busy site, but it has a clear personality and point of view. I like this site. It's chaotic and fun. There are some nice calls to action [spots to click on], and it does a good job of fulfilling the needs of consumers: locations, jobs, nutrition, etc. The navigation was clearly well-planned and the branding is right on."

    Speedway SuperAmerica

    www.speedway.com Speedway, based in Springfield, Ohio, offers a home page that featured a summertime "Gas Rollback" promotion at the time of this writing, as well as its Speedy Rewards credit card and Speedway SuperAmerica's food and drink. Speedy Rewards members can register online and access point balances. Visitors can easily check gas prices from Speedway's home page. The site offers an online gas price promise stating prices are as accurate as possible, updated every 30 minutes, seven days a week. The food and drink tab on the home page leads to a listing of "clubs," such as the beverage club, pizza club and milk gallon club -- some of which are tied to the rewards program.

    Freedman/Magno: "Promotion of money-saving offers, co-branded credit card, a way to check local gas prices, Speedy Rewards Club -- all are effective."

    Tedeschi Food Shops Inc.

    www.tedeschifoodshops.com Tedeschi Food Shops, based in Rockland, Mass., welcomes visitors to its Web site with a message from Charlie Fitzgibbons, president and CEO. A special is also featured on the home page. The "Products For You" tab leads to a page of options including Tedeschi Select, where a click of the mouse leads to a full listing of the chain's private-label products. Also on the products page are links to Tedeschi's Deli, which gives locations and a menu, new products, energizing products, Green Mountain Coffee and lottery links. "What's On Sale" includes an up-to-date ad, and a store locator steers visitors to Tedeschi Food Shop, L'il Peach or Store 24 locations with a map, hours and store features, such as a deli or coffee bar.

    Adlin: "Nice site. Very well-branded and inviting! Also, the links are totally arranged around the customer and what they would be interested in, and they are worded in the customer's language [such as 'where to find us' vs. 'store locations']. The navigation is good and simple, and the design is clean and inviting. The site follows through on its 'promises.' I get what I expect to get from the links."

    Valero Energy Corp.

    www.valero.com As with most Big Oil home pages, the stores of San Antonio-based Valero share the site with corporate, safety, environment and other information about the oil company. A click on the "Our Stores" tab leads to a store locator, promotions, and gift and fuel cards.

    The online store tab redirects visitors to the Valero Specialty Shop site, which offers products ranging from apparel, sports gear, sale items and gifts less than $10, all with the Valero logo. Store gift certificates are available, and a link takes the customer to a list of Valero stores where products are displayed. Checkout, order history and tracking are typical of online sales sites.

    Freedman/Magno: "The site has effective information about the environmental awareness of Valero and community works."

    Wawa Inc.

    www.wawa.com Pennsylvania-based Wawa's home page features a fountain/deli special with links below to hoagie fundraising, the Wawa credit card and job opportunities. "Nutritional information" for deli items and beverages allows customers to build their own meal and get total calories, fat and other diet information. The "Food Choices" tab includes information on bakery, coffee, wraps, party platters, ready when you are (premade) items and Wawa's new hot-to-go bowls. "Cool merchandise" leads visitors to Wawa toy trucks, novelties and gift cards, which can be purchased online. Customers can look up gift card balances online, and for those who don't already know, the Web site explains the "Wawa" name (a Lenni Lenape Indian word for the Canada goose, found in the Delaware Valley and emblazoned on the corporate logo).

    Adlin: "The 'Shop Online' tab gives a hint as to the kind of merchandise available in the online store (trucks, gift cards, etc.) -- well done."

    Wilson Farms Neighborhood Stores

    www.wilsonfarms.com The home page for Wilson Farms Neighborhood Stores, Sugarcreek Stores and Wilson Farms Xpress, based in Williamsville, N.Y., features a breakfast combo of coffee and a sandwich as of this writing. The "What's in Store" tab includes descriptions of departments, items and services, as well as nutritional information.

    "Today's Specials" has a copy of the chain's latest ad. Visitors can click "Shop Online" to order Wilson Farms coffee, fruit baskets and gift packs. Online checkout is similar to other shopping Web sites.

    Freedman/Magno: "Great marketing of the store. Specials are front and center. Nice branding messages. The images make you want to run out and buy a coffee and doughnut. Pricing is bold and attention-getting. 'Join our Mailing List' encourages signups. The home page is busy, yet clean and legible."

    Room for Improvement

    C-stores need to provide customers with more specific information about their stores, according to the consultants, whose comments ranged from "Doesn't highlight store assortment," to "There's no photo of the storefront or banner." This need for more information is part of effective marketing, something many of these Web sites lack, according to consultant comments such as, "I'm not sure what this site is marketing or to whom," and "It doesn't promote the store effectively."

    Some areas in need of improvement concerned site construction or design, as shown in these comments:

    -- "The main section of the home page is not clickable, so there's no call to action."

    -- "The signup process is cumbersome and requires too many mouse clicks."

    -- "All links go to the same page, so there's nothing to make me want to return to the site."

    Some sites are not updated often enough, the consultants said, while others had "broken promises," such as, "The Lotto link doesn't work, the specials page doesn't work, and there's no explanation as to why, such as 'Under Construction' or 'Coming Soon.'"

    Only a few of the sites in the sample offered online shopping and -- with the exception of Valero's Specialty Shop -- offered few items, which prompted consultant comments about lack of selection. Other comments included:

    -- "There's not enough information about the products for sale."

    -- "The site has only a very basic checkout."

    -- "Rough store design."

    If, as Adlin said, "A Web site is like a conversation with your customer. It's the same as when someone walks into your store," many convenience stores can greet their customers in a more effective way than they are currently doing with their Web sites.

    By D. Gail Fleenor
    • About D. Gail Fleenor

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