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With smartphone sales and mobile apps on the rise, progressive c-store retailers understand that in order to sustain success, they must capitalize on this growing market trend and be able to say: "We have an app for that."
According to a study by market research firm ComScore, smartphones are the fastest growing segment of the mobile phone market with more than 45.5 million Americans owning a device in 2010. This statistic is expected to skyrocket in coming years, as will the number of new apps.
"We were one of the first c-stores to have a Web site, so we understand how technology evolves. We’ve been studying the social media scene for quite a few years," said Scott Hartman, president of Rutter’s Farm Stores, operating 54 locations in Pennsylvania. “Mobile application has been a fascinating learning curve, but compared to other new technologies it has been a smooth transition."
While Hartman said he first investigated apps in 2006, last year Rutter’s turned to GasBuddy to develop its first free iPhone app. Six months later the app was allowing users to get directions to the nearest Rutter’s location and to check gas prices. In the months that followed, the app was made available for BlackBerry devices and included an upgraded coupon rewards program.
Rutter’s customers using that app can redeem coupons under “deal alerts.” By clicking “use it now,” a coupon appears for a short amount of time during which time it can be scanned off the phone at the register.
“We’re trying to make the apps simple to use while offering a value equation for the consumer,” said Hartman. “I’m a tech nerd and like this stuff. I’ve always been a fan of iPhone applications because I think they are easier then many other applications on other phones. Gasbuddy tried to copy the iPhone model for BlackBerry.”
Pilot Flying J, the result of the recent merger between Pilot Travel Centers LLC and Flying J Inc., has also been active in the app market, explained Lynsay Caylor, social media marketing manager.
“Our customers are constantly on the road with a mobile phone in tow. Creating an application is the easiest way for our customers to gain location information on the go,” said Caylor. “We also want to enhance connectivity with our customers and provide a quick and easy way to check loyalty card balances.”
Pilot Flying J, which operates 550 travel centers in the U.S. and Canada, turned to Wandering WiFi, which provides Wi-Fi service at its travel centers to develop its free app. Launched April 1, 2010, the app is compatible with iPhone, iTouch and iPad. While weekly activity fluctuates, approximately 13,000 downloads were realized in the first three months after launch.
The design process was streamlined, noted Caylor, who added once the app was completed it was submitted to Apple for review and approval which took approximately six weeks. “Design includes a splash screen for when you launch the app, headers and graphics for any other pages you have on the application,” she said.
With new apps hitting the market every day, there’s an immediacy to not only enhance existing apps, but make them available for more smartphones. “At first our app was only offered for the iPhone. Now it is available for BlackBerry, and soon it will be available for the Droid,” said Hartman. “We’re pushing it out to more types of devices.”
Understanding customer mindset through apps is informing how c-stores market and communicate product offerings. “One of the great things about technology is we know all the numbers and statistics,” said Hartman, who declined to divulge specific numbers due to competition. He continued: “We use coupon redemption to ascertain information on consumer spending habits. This is a long term investment. It’s always best to be further ahead of your competition, which is why I’m coy about sharing numbers.”
Caylor said future enhancements and upgrades are already in the works and include adding more store amenities, trip planning features, coupons and the ability to shop from the Pilot Flying J e-store.
“We have received very positive customer feedback. We have a 3.5 star rating with 183 reviews on iTunes,” said Caylor. “We will definitely incorporate customer feedback into upgrades and are always encouraging feedback.”
Both Caylor and Hartman said they use the application often to determine ease of use. In both cases, they made recommendations that were reflected in upgrades.
“Customers send us e-mails just to tell us how cool the app is and how much they love using it,” said Hartman. “We are always looking to improve the experience but regarding future apps, we hold those cards close to our chest.”
By W.B. King