Truckstop Operators Turn To Technology To Improve Operations And Increase The Bottom Line

Today’s technology is allowing truckstop and travel operators to rethink the shopping experience and make it even more customer centric, which can cultivate loyalty and grow sales. The right technology can also streamline operations and reduce staffing needs, all of which adds up to improved profits.

“Given a 75 percent smartphone adoption rate, mass consumers are increasingly comfortable, proactive and mobile technology users. So, the timing is ripe for retailers to apply technology where it enables a better shopping experience,” said Chuck White, vice president of brands and marketing for DAS Companies Inc. “Savvy travel plazas, like leading convenience retailers, are using technology to create more welcoming, convenient and engaging shopping experiences.”

There are thousands of new technologies operators can invest in, but the key to success is investing in the right technology. White said, “Steve Jobs, Apple’s visionary founder, forewarned, ‘You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology—not the other way around.’”

White said retailers are using digital media, such as search engines, websites and apps, to build pre-store relationships. They are also using loyalty programs supported by websites, email, in-store kiosks and coded loyalty cards and creating more engaging shopping experiences through interactive displays.

Darren Schulte, vice president of membership at NATSO, said operators have to first understand who their customers are to ensure they employ the right technology to meet their needs.

“I’ve seen operators bring a technology into their business and hope people will adopt it. That is challenging to do,” Schulte said. “It is more critical to understand what customers are looking for.”

Once operators understand their customers, they can start to target specific technologies throughout the location.

Tools To Gather Customer Feedback
Coffee Cup Fuel Stops has installed customer satisfaction kiosks at three of its stores. “We’re using Opinion Meter as the survey source and Samsung Galaxy 10-inch tablets as the hard- ware,” said Chris Heinz, director of finance & operations, at Coffee Cup Fuel Stops. Heinz explained that he chose the Android because they don’t have a lot of updates.

The number of responses varies by location, which Heinz attributes to the placement of the devices. “At our stores with the new design where the men’s and women’s restrooms are nearest each other, we’re getting 300–400 responses a week,” he said. “At the Vermillion store, which has a different design, we’re getting 100 a week.”

Real-time feedback is the biggest benefit of the survey devices, Heinz said. The kiosks have four smiley faces, two of which are for bad or okay. “If they click bad or okay, it takes them to a window and they can detail whatever the problem is. It goes instantly to the fuel desk manager and myself. The goal is to make realtime adjustments,” he said.

The surveys can also alert the location to bigger issues. When reviewing the monthly report for one location, Heinz noted repeated comments about a bad odor. “We had our HVAC service company go and check it out and one belt was bowed on a ventilation fan, so they fixed it and it improved our bad odor results. I have them looking at alternative ways to increase ventilation,” he said.

Without the feedback, Heinz said it could have taken quite some time before they realized there was an issue.

Heinz will continue using the devices for restroom surveys, but he plans to eventually expand them into other areas of the business.

Grab-And-Go Technologies
Schulte said it is well known that professional drivers are starved for time, which is why technology that can get them on their way quicker does well. He said everything from electronic menu boards to improved ordering methods are gaining traction.

Some locations are turning to kiosks, which allow customers to place orders that go directly to the kitchen. “In the made-to-order space, our kiosk is a very good match because you can, as a business owner, offer any product you wish in any work flow in any look and feel,” said Justin Palmer, vice president of engineering for Xpedient, a manufacturer of kiosks. “The experience is very similar to an airport kiosk where you go up and interact with a touch screen to navigate through an order.”

Palmer said kiosks can work for any type of food, including subs, pizza, fried chicken, salads and dessert.

Thorntons Inc., which operates a chain of convenience stores and one truckstop, has added sandwich ordering kiosks that it has branded Subworks, said David Caudill, vice president of information technology for Thorntons Inc. “We want people in and out and we don’t want to be the reason they’re held up,” Caudill said.

Once customers complete their order, they receive a ticket. They can shop until their number is called, then they pay at the cash register. “The good thing is they have three minutes to walk around and shop. Then we cash them out and let them go,” Caudill said, adding that customers that don’t want to use the kiosk can still order and customize their sandwich at the counter.

The kiosks can help minimize errors in any orders. “As far as getting order accuracy, we see people being more accurate because the customer can indicate exactly what they want,” Palmer said.

Xpedient can also configure workflow to provide build instructions for different menu items, which can improve operations in the kitchen. “It is basically the recipe that the store owner can configure,” Palmer said, adding that the system can route orders to different stations within the kitchen. “Some customers break out their kitchen into different areas—drink area with coffees, etc.”

For Caudill, the kiosk has been especially helpful with suggestive selling. “The human behavior is to ask once or twice whereas the kiosk asks every time you go to the next screen and you get more guests to take the offer. It puts the control in the guests’ hands,” he said.

Kiosks can also help on the labor front. “Everybody tries to hire the friendliest people they can get, but sometimes people are in bad moods. With the kiosk you know what you’re going to get,” Caudill said.

Palmer said the kiosks allow locations to operate leaner and shift their labor. “As far as the order taking goes, there is no requirement to have a staff person for that. What we have seen folks do is have one or more kitchen folks that are multitasked—maybe they do inventory with stocking but also work in the kitchen as well,” he said.

One of the benefits of the kiosk is the data it provides back to owners, which can allow them to make better decisions to enhance the bottomline. “You’re not only understanding that they got a turkey sandwich, you know they got it with lettuce, olive and tomatoes. Now you have a better understanding of the replenishment,” Palmer said.

Palmer said the start up kit is usually a $5,500 investment. “Depending on the hardware stack you go with, typically a counter top kiosk and receipt printer is $2,500 to $3,000,” he said, adding that there is a licensing and support fee.

Caudill said the hardware is agnostic, but Thorntons is using Posiflex. He added that the system is easy to use and employees have minimal interaction with the kiosk. “It is set it and forget it. You’re going to have the occasional issue where the printer got jammed, but that is it,” he said.

There are some barriers to entry, Palmer said, explaining that some of the older generations prefer to order with a person. “The adoption of the technology has been the most successful on the East and West Coasts and Texas,” Palmer said, adding that the Midwest has been slower to adopt the technology.

Heinz is looking into self-serv kiosks for his location, but said he prefers technology that can scan anything with a barcode and accept payment, whether it is cash or a credit card. “The idea is to take people out of the line that just have two or three items,” he said.

Tools To Bring The Inside Out
Schulte recently talked with one NATSO member that is investing in technology so employees can take food orders right at the diesel islands. He said, “They’re in the process of putting their menus on iPads with a Square [credit card swiping device] so people can pay there. They will be walking out to the fuel stop and saying, ‘Sir, can I get you anything?’”

“Drivers are starved for time, and a large percentage of customers fuel and leave. This location is working to make the stop more effective and efficient for the driver,” Schulte said.

Signs That Save Time
Digital menu boards can also reduce the amount of time drivers need to spend at a location. “A menu that is changing and giving customers all of the prices is engaging on the eyes and serves a need—speed. It helps you make a choice quicker,” Schulte said. (Schulte has written about digital signage many times on NATSO’s blog. Read 12 Benefits of Digital Signs for more ideas on why it is a good idea here.)

Tools To Bring Customers Inside
A large percentage of customers at truckstops and travel plazas simply stop to fuel, but new technology may help locations draw customers indoors.

Technology that holds promise in this space are beacons—a piece of hardware that can be attached to a wall or countertop to transmit messages or prompts directly to a smartphone or tablet. The devices can be used both in-store and outdoors, collect data on shoppers, and provide information on where a customer is and how long he or she stays there. This, in turn, allows retailers to send targeted offers to customers’ smartphones in an effort to increase loyalty or suggest product.

Operators could use beacons in multiple places, such as the entrance, coffee bar, register and fuel pumps and alter the messages they send customers based on where they are in the store. For example, someone fueling could receive a coupon or offer aimed at drawing them inside.

Interactive Displays
White said the next generation of apps will utilize beacons to allow smartphones to be fully interactive with a display. “That technology will be deployed and tested at Best Buys, Targets and high-end retailers,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think travel centers need to invest in an app at this point but can tap into technology their suppliers offer.

For example, Schulte said, Subway has an app that allows customers to pre-order. “The location can create the sandwich so it is ready when the customer arrives,” he said.

Suppliers can also use technology to create in-store displays for operators. DAS Companies Inc. has partnered with Love’s Travel Stops to create their “Mobile 2 Go” zone, a “sensory-charged,” full-scale mobile electronics department that allows customers to see, hear, touch and try on technology.

At Pilot Flying J, DAS Companies Inc. devised a center store mobile tech aisle anchored by a Mobile Tech Learning Center that enhances customer learning through a push-button, computer monitor encased in a classic jukebox designed kiosk that houses cellular headsets and GPS devices. And at WILCO, DAS Companies Inc. employed an Electronics Engagement Center that empowers consumers to play with live mobile electronics devices, watch 30-second videos, and search a complete mobile electronics product library via a push-sensor, computer monitor.

The Right Lights
The right technology can also encourage drivers to stop in the first place. Mark Allaman, regional sales manager for Sunshine Electronic Display Corp., said LED signage can get drivers’ attention and encourage them to exit. “Being unchained from physical updates, you can have up-to-the minute pricing to remain more competitive in your market,” he said.

LED signs also allow operators to make price changes electronically, rather than physically, which can save staff time. “There’s a lot of good will generated the day site personnel are freed from changing track numbers in nasty weather,” Allaman said.

When trying to decide on which signage to use, operators should consider the line of sight to the sign and the rate of speed on surrounding roadways. “Then I would suggest thinking about contrast, how clean the sign looks, what message to you want to send to prospective customers and what image you want to project to your community,” he said.

A Backup System
Keith Wade of Dodge City Petro learned the hard way that losing internet service can be costly. When AT&T accidentally cut a line near the travel plaza, Dodge City Petro lost internet service for two days straight. “As you can imagine with today’s technology, we were dead in the water. Most of our systems would not function,” Wade said, adding that the company couldn’t process fuel cards or credit cards, which resulted in thousands of dollars in losses.

Now the location pays for two internet providers and runs them simultaneously to have back up in place. “It costs more, but we would have paid for it five times if I had already figured that out,” Wade said.

It was easy to find a second provider and it took about two hours for the company to come in and install the system.

“We made a simple change that many have probably already figured out, but I bet there are some still out there running one internet provider,” Wade said.

Mindy Long's photo

Mindy Long

Before launching a full-time freelance career, Long edited NATSO's Stop Watch magazine. Prior to that Long worked as a staff reporter for Transport Topics, a weekly trade newspaper, covering freight transportation, fuel and environmental issues. In addition to covering the transportation sector, Long has written, reported and edited for a variety of media outlets. She was the Washington correspondent for WCAX-TV (CBS) in Burlington, Vt., a criminal court reporter in Chicago and a freelance copy editor for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine in Washington D.C. Long hold a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill., and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Westminster College in Salt Lake City.More
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Stop Watch Magazine

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