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Sometimes, it’s the little things in life that provide the deepest insights.
As a consumer insights researcher for General Mills, I often work with huge surveys that poll hundreds or thousands of consumers. But recently, we conducted a very small study that highlighted a very big truth about convenience stores.
I’ll tell you about the study, and then I’ll tell you what we learned.
We polled 50 c-store shoppers across the United States, asking some simple, open-ended questions: Tell us about your most memorable experience in a c-store. Tell us about when you told someone else about your c-store experience. Write a “letter” to the store you visit most often, describing your likes and dislikes. We wanted to understand what motivates word-of-mouth around the convenience store experience -- whether on social media or in person.
What we learned may not surprise you, but it’s a truth that’s worth repeating: Everything depends on the shopper’s in-store experience -- everything.
What drives word-of-mouth? Surprises. When something out of the ordinary happens in the store, people talk about it. What drives loyalty? When the same great things happen every day. If the experience is consistently good, they keep coming back. Word-of-mouth and loyalty are two facets of the same gem. That gem is the shopper’s experience, and it is shaped by every interaction they have in your store.
The experience boils down to four key areas: People, Prices, Products and Place.
Friendly, empathetic, helpful personnel are a store’s most valuable asset. They can make or break the shopper’s experience. Here’s how one consumer in our study put it: “It is amazing how you can form personal relationships with people you just see for a couple minutes as you go in and out of a convenience store.” Or this: "I really like it when I go into the 7-Eleven near my house and they know me by name. I really feel like they are a part of my life.”
Shoppers are on the lookout for value. Whether it’s a freebie from a rewards program, a hot promotion or Starbucks-level coffee without the Starbucks-level price, they’ll talk about it. As one shopper said: "I always share when the Murphy’s here has 10 cents off a gallon of gas and cigarette promos for the friends that smoke. Why? In this economy, saving every little red cent helps.”
Shoppers love cool new concepts or limited-time offers, and they’ll talk about them. When a new RaceTrac store opened in one shopper’s neighborhood, she raved to her relatives about the frozen yogurt: “I told them how good that yogurt swirl was and how they had so many unique toppings from fresh fruit, nuts, sprinkles etc. It was absolutely delicious!” And listen to this passionate Wawa shopper: “I have told all my family and friends to try the Gobbler at Wawa! I probably would have this for Thanksgiving if I could get away with it!”
The convenience, cleanliness and consistency in the store might not generate a lot of word-of-mouth, but it does generate loyalty. Here’s how one consumer expressed it: “Dear PDQ, I visit you because you have competitive gas prices. You're close to home. It's so easy to enter your lot and you always have several pumps open. Your pumps are always functioning and reliable. But I really visit you because of what's inside. You have fresh-baked items baked in store. They are always consistent in taste, reliable and so tasty.”
This little 50-person study was not specifically about social media, but when we look at c-store related posts that shoppers share with their friends on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, we see a similar pattern.
On the subject of people:
- “The Holiday gas station employee always lets me know when Planters peanuts are buy one, get one free. She just gets me.”
- “The cashier at Wawa recognized me from last semester. I guess you could say I go there often.”
- “The cashier at Kum and Go just made my day :) People can be so sweet!”
On the subject of prices:
- “RaceTrac slushy things are such a steal! $1.19 for a 32 oz. #deal #aftermoviesnack”
- “Speedy Rewards card…You’re my hero.”
- “MAPCO on Kirby Ave-Memphis. Lowest price I have seen in years! With #mapcorewards you save 3 more cents too!”
On the subject of products:
- “I'm driving home and got a sudden craving for a Slurpee. Time to find a 7-Eleven!”
- “I really want Sheetz popcorn chicken and fries right now."
- “Casey's pizza is always a good decision.”
On the subject of place:
- “Delicious food. Organic tofu. Friendly service. Clean showers. Laundry. Pilot truck stop. Exit 67. Procured my Rewards Card today. #mind #blown #awesome”
- “[Spinx is] Always clean and they have sanitizer at the gas pumps.”
- “I am in love with a gas station…QuikTrip is clean, well stocked, brightly lit and fully staffed 24/7.”
Of course, there are negative comments on social media as well, but those negative comments generally reflect the in-store experience as well. After all, if shoppers have an unpleasant experience in the store, they’ll talk about it. And if the food is good one day, but lacking the next, that affects their loyalty to the store.
There’s a lot of excitement in the industry today around high-tech ways of connecting with shoppers: apps, social media, loyalty programs and all the rest. Those are all great ways to interact with shoppers and they are propelling the industry forward. But with all the hype around technology, it’s good to remember this fundamental truth: When a store provides a consistently great experience every day, sprinkled with a few pleasant surprises here and there, loyalty and buzz will naturally follow.