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Industry Innovation

Improvements in Food Service Technology

Pursuing Technical Innovation to Remain on Top

coffee dispensing equipment at c-store

ew food service technology can create better experiences at convenience stores. Fresher, crisper, hotter, and tastier products can be enjoyed by customers when C-store owners make upgrades on dispensers and kiosks. The service can also be crisper when C-store owners integrate digital ordering and app-based interactions into their foot-traffic models. In many ways, the urgency behind upgrading C-store technology comes down to the growing C-store vs. quick service restaurant competition. However, C-store owners have reasons for creating better experiences through technology that go deeper than simply mirroring what their competitors are doing. Take a look at the return-on-investment winners when bringing technology into a store.

Lead With Coffee: Food Service Technology Can Draw Daily Coffee Drinkers Away from Drive-Through Competitors

The thought of "convenience store" coffee in the morning is enough to make any drive-through devotee shutter. What if it doesn't have to? C-store owners have every reason to capitalize on the fact that people who buy coffee out instead of making it at home would love to cut through the morning car line. However, the reputation that convenience stores have for offering self-service coffee stations with brews that have been languishing on the burner next to room-temperature creamer keeps them away.

"While big food and beverage companies seek to build on brand loyalty, they’re also tweaking their businesses using technology, trying to stay on top of trends and tastes as they launch new products," according to Forbes.

Bean-to-cup technology changes this. With this option, the button is the barista. Convenience stores and gas stations around the country are luring in foot traffic by rolling out new high-tech bean-to-cup machines that provide made-to-order coffee with the touch of a button. The beauty of "smart" coffee kiosks and bean-to-cup stations is that employees no longer have to constantly monitor and replenish coffee reserves. The coffee is always at a "boutique" level regardless of how busy the front of the store gets. In addition, these high-tech stations offering a variety of gourmet coffee options actually turn the local convenience store into a coffee destination instead of a last resort.

Temperature-Controlled Kiosks and Stations Keep C-Stores Competitive With Quick-Service Restaurants

Adaptive C-stores are technological smorgasbords of culinary delights. Using various kiosks and temperature-controlled displays, C-stores can be one-stop shops for baked goods, hot meals, bottled beverages, fresh fruits, sandwiches, wraps, soups, quick meals, and platters. The bonus? Customers don't have to deal with standing in line to order, communicating with employees, or watching someone else handle their food from behind a counter. It all adds up to create an experience where customers don't have to make multiple stops between work and home. What's more, C-store owners can shatter the myth of gas stations and convenience stores only offering prepackaged foods by creating a garden of fresh foods catering to classic eaters, healthy eaters, vegan eaters, gluten-free eaters, and more.

Forget the Fountain: App-Based Soda Pouring Is the New Thing

Freestyle soda machines that allow customers to use their smartphones to "select and pour" became popular around the country during the pandemic because they offer a contactless way to pour soda. However, customers aren't letting go of this trend. The technology behind freestyle machines allows C-stores to offer dozens more soda choices without needing extra nozzle space for each flavor because there's a unified pour station for the entire drink menu. This is also a cleaner, more hygienic choice that customers can appreciate in the forever-changed post-pandemic market.

Self-Checkout and Contactless Payment

Automated checkout options are perfect matches for the grab-and-go C-store pace. However, C-stores need to be careful about transforming friendly stores into "automated ghost towns." Offering these options while continuing to keep friendly faces very prominently featured behind the counter is important for not alienating regulars.

Balancing Impulse Purchases With Order-Ahead Technology

C-store owners can easily fall into the trap of thinking that app-based ordering isn't for them because they bank on spur-of-the-moment purchases. While it's true that C-stores need to keep an eye on their "bread and butter" through impulse-based and necessity-based foot traffic, they also need to have the digital infrastructure in place to accommodate app-based pickup and delivery orders to stay competitive with other local eateries. This can typically be done very inexpensively by using third-party technology that requires a fee-per-transaction contract instead of a large initial investment.

Using Technology as a Loyalty Asset

"In order for a rewards program to be a profit center instead of a cost center, the payout must be inextricably linked to desired behaviors," according to Harvard Business Review. C-store loyalty programs help to reinforce a store's identity as the "friendly neighborhood store" that remembers you. In addition, loyalty programs allow C-stores to market specific items based on each customer's preferences and habits to keep things in the "profit center" range instead of the "cost center" range. Loyalty programs also allow C-store owners to mine data from all customers to enhance store features based on organic customer habits. This becomes more and more important as convenience stores try to find their way in crowded markets where customers can get any product from any type of store.

Never Be Afraid of Pilot Technology

One way for C-store owners to be at the forefront of new technology without actually investing in technology is to open their stores up to pilot projects. This isn't always easy because pilot programs for new products and dispensing mechanisms are sometimes chosen based on market location alone. However, it never hurts for store owners to reach out to sales representatives they use when ordering products to let their openness to being a pilot store for upcoming projects be known. When stores sign on for pilot programs, major corporations generate the buzz and novelty factor for them.

Final Thoughts: Food Service Technology Can Make What's Already Great About Convenience Stores Better

It's okay to tread carefully with changes in food service technology. However, it's not wise to ignore them out of loyalty to an "old model." One common mistake is for C-store owners to think that they have to change their business models to accommodate changing technology trends. In reality, the better strategy is to be selective and intentional when it comes to the technology assets chosen to enhance existing features in a store. C-stores can use technology to do what they're best at even better without trying to conquer new services. In many cases, it requires nothing more than a better coffee machine.

April 28, 2023