Forecourt managers are often hard-pressed to find ways to attract new and returning customers to their establishment. Many resort to competing on price, but with fuel sales providing limited revenue, this is a race to the bottom that only leads to narrower margins. So we asked gas station managers and experts: how can you drive more returning customers to your gas stations, without cutting prices – and affecting your margins? Here are their 9 expert tips:
When all gas stations carry the same types and brands of products, it’s hard to attract shoppers. Find a product niche that other stores around you do not carry, and which locals and/or drivers passing by might be interested in. If you want to attract locals, consider installing a video game rental or a lottery machine. To draw tourist and visitors, focus on premium items which have a connection with what your area offers. Are there rivers nearby to which fishermen flock? Stock baits or flies. Woods where people go bird-watching? Add to your shelves binoculars, guidebooks and seeds. Are you located on the way to the stadium? Then stock up on the local team’s jerseys and merchandise for fans dropping by on their way to the game.
2. Remember that first impressions count
Cleanliness is important to many customers. Keep your fuel pumps in tip-top shape: clean the nozzles, buttons and display. The gas pumps are the first thing your customers see – if they are ruined or dirty, this will reflect badly on your whole business. Customers are quick to think “If this is the way they keep the forecourt, what will the kitchen look like?” It goes without saying: keep your bathroom spotless. Check it multiple times a day and remove spills, used paper and graffiti as they appear. Few things are as unpleasant as a seemingly unsanitary public bathroom. Do you remember that Trainspotting bathroom scene? Well, that’s the first image that comes to my mind when I enter a nasty public restroom. And that’s a cinematic reference you definitely don’t want to pop up in your customers’ mind when they enter your establishment.
3. Think of product placement
Too many c-stores seem to pay way too little attention to product display and positioning: motor oil is sitting next to the candy bar section, cleaning products share a shelf with kids’ toys. The result? Customers are confused, and hardly tempted to add more items to their basket. Foster impulse buys by positioning complementary items next to each other in your minimart: chips and salty snacks should be next to the beer and soda. Charcoal next to the lighter fluid – not too far from the grill spices. A functional layout makes it easier for customers to find what they are looking for – and perhaps add an item or two that they hadn’t planned to buy from the start.
4. Spice up your foodservice
Just because you run a gas station it doesn’t mean that your foodservice has to be bog standard, with a limited selection of tired sandwiches and wilted Cesar’s salads. Offer tasty, original dishes, and you will attract more returning, local customers to your establishment. This doesn’t mean you need to hire a Michelin-starred chef – although it pays off to spend a bit more to hire a good local cook. What matters is that you bring your own flavors to the table – something other diners don’t have. These can be anything from a signature apple pie, to a large selection of delicious pretzels, to a home-made chicken spice that makes your burgers memorable.
5. Offer a “deal of the day”
Special offers can be a great way of attracting customers and increasing basket size. To achieve higher profitability, discount items which are often sold alongside high-profit products: you could for instance have an offer on milk – but don’t forget to position boxes of chocolate chip cookies next to the refrigerator. How often should you have these offers? Science suggests that pop-up offers are more effective than day-of-the week discounts: studies have shown that surprise deals make people happier than expected ones.
6. Showcase your personality
My parents have recently become loyal customers of a new gas station. This gas station is not cheaper or more convenient – they actually have to drive past four competitors before getting there. “What’s so special?” I asked. Turns out the place is family run. The grandfather, a gentleman in his eighties, recognized my parents the second times they stopped by to refill their tank, and gave them some persimmons from his garden: “Our trees had so many fruits this year, don’t you want to take some home?” Since then, my mother has been a faithful customer: not because she is hoping to score more free fruits (although apparently those persimmons were delicious), but because, she says, she’d rather give her money to a nice guy than to a faceless corporation. She is not alone in this. “When you do even a small thing to make it personal, people love it. They want that — they want to know that there's people behind a big corporation,” said Jim Bernard. Bernard owns a gas station in Seattle, USA, which for years has been amusing passers-by and attracting guests with witty messages on its road-facing readerboard. The messages, which include thought-provoking questions such as “What happens if you get scared half to death twice?” and my personal favorite “When it’s raining cats and dogs, don’t step in a poodle” are not used to showcase in-store promotions or price of gas. Their only aim is to display the owners’ personality, and brighten someone’s day. The result? Free publicity, and more loyal customers.
7. Implement a loyalty program
According to a General Mills Convenience & Foodservice research, convenience store shoppers are avid members of loyalty programs; and yet, not all establishment take this opportunity. Chris Quam, consumer insights manager at General Mills, said: “Convenience store shoppers are familiar with loyalty programs from grocery and drug stores but fewer shoppers participate in c-store loyalty programs. There is definitely an opportunity to expand.” Implement a loyalty program, and make it worthwhile for participants: give easily attainable benefits, and don’t forget to include surprises and personalized offers. To make the program more attractive, reward customers for shopping with you across your whole establishment: at the pumps, c-store and restaurant. This can be easily done if you use an integrated system to manage your whole forecourt business, rather than disparate systems – which are badly integrated, and can experience delays and duplicate or missing information - for each activity. A comprehensive loyalty program is not only more advantageous for users; it also enables you to collect a wide range of information on your customers, which you can then use to optimize your purchasing, as well as to design tailored offers and deals.
8. Make it safe
Gas stations often have a bad reputation. If they appear in the news, you know it’s because of one of two reasons: robberies, and rising fuel prices. Make sure that you keep your station a safe place for both your customers and your employees. Keep the forecourt well lit, and do not save money on security cameras. If your forecourt is bright and well controlled, you will increase the number of people stopping by during off hours. Make your staff members feel secure by installing shatter-proof glass, electronic doors, a security system and a drop safe for cash.
9. Let service set your store apartWhatever you do, never underestimate the importance of great customer service. How you pick and treat your staff matters. Focus on:
- selecting punctual and reliable employees;
- giving them good training: underline the importance of greeting all customers with a smile, and making eye contact with them;
- rewarding employees who give exceptional service. High satisfaction in your staff will also decrease employee turnover, and contribute to keeping the quality of work high.