There is one convenience store (C-store) for every 2,266 people in the United States, according to a 2023 NACS/NielsenIQ convenience industry score count. Yesway Chief Marketing Officer Derek Gaskins says that, in many ways, a C-store is one of the oldest professions on earth. The general store of old is the C-store of today, and just as the name has evolved, so have C-store capabilities.
Yesway is well ahead of the curve when it comes to utilizing technology to create a more fluid and engaging customer experience. Established in 2015, Yesway is one of the fastest-growing C-store chains in the US with Yesway and Allsup’s locations in nine states and a “2021 Convenience Store Chain of the Year” award from CStore Decisions to boot.
“I’m part of an organization that operates like a glorified start-up,” Gaskins explains. “We move fast, and we’ve had the opportunity to seek out some of the best ideas all over the world and apply them to local markets that we serve, from New Mexico to South Dakota, all with that customer experience in mind.”
For Gaskins, that means seeking out partners that are used to working on the front lines of innovation. That’s where Sara Grofcsik comes in. The executive director of US sales at Samsung Electronics America is tasked with helping Gaskins and Yesway create the ultimate customer experience, one that is changing far faster than one might expect of the C-store space.
Grofcsik’s purview—which includes C-store, quick serve restaurant (QSR), retail, hotel and casino, and food and beverage—is a titan of consumer trends. Some of those trends were kicked into overdrive during the pandemic.
“We’re seeing a lot of C-stores integrating a drive-through, an integration that really helped businesses stay open during COVID,” Grofcsik explains. “A lot of C-stores are moving toward digital menu boards because it’s an on-ramp for additional technology to be integrated into the drive-through at a later date.”
The move to mobile device ordering was also a byproduct of the pandemic. C-stores have been rolling out loyalty programs via mobile apps that might save customers money on their gas or other specialty items.
“It’s a way to help businesses track who is coming back and why,” Grofcsik says. “It helps predict buying behaviors and forecast trends much more than they might have been interested in before.”
Gaskins says the entire industry is on the cusp of what he calls Mobile 3.0, a true omnichannel powered by mobile devices that include mobile ordering, mobile payments, loyalty programs, gamification, and even ancillary third-party delivery integration.
As customer self-serve kiosks become more popular, Grofcsik points out that for many reasons, it’s a customer-driven integration.
“We actually find customers more willing to upsell themselves, which is an interesting phenomenon,” Grofcsik says. “When you’re face-to-face with someone, you might feel guilty about grabbing that extra drink or snack. You might feel pressured to rush through your transaction. A lot of the time if you’re asked a question, you might just get flustered and immediately say, ‘No.’ At a kiosk, we find people are much more willing to give that additional item some extra thought.”
If you’ve found yourself more regularly captivated by Maria Menounos guiding you through your fill-up via a screen in the middle of the gas pump, there’s also a good reason for that. Programmatic advertising is playing a more and more significant part of C-store bottom lines, both because of its wide-usage cases and with which owners can prioritize what they want their customers to see.
“A programmatic advertising model creates a stream of revenue that helps offset some of the CapX concerns that come along with integrating new hardware and digital solutions in stores,” Grofcsik explains. “But with the addition of more screens comes the opportunity for more advertisers, some local and some national, to get massive impression numbers from all of those interactions. It might be the app, the gas pump, or the drive-through screen. I think you’ll continue to see this space grow.”
This is the foresight Gaskins relies on to keep Yesway one step ahead.
“I have to say a lot for Samsung,” the CMO says. “They connected with me directly to address some of the challenges we were trying to solve. They took Yesway seriously as a brand when I know we might be a smaller fish in their pond. That focus and direct connection have helped me and our team step up our game.”
That game, for Gaskins, comes down to a phrase attributed to both Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. “‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,’” Gaskins quotes. “If you can explain it to a toddler or a grandparent, then you can explain it to anyone. As much as we continue to innovate, I want us to simplify and amplify. That is my North Star.”