Evolving customer expectations are driving change in the retail petroleum industry

October 5, 2020

Written by Chris Kalischefski

In the classic film “Back to the Future,” one of the first culture shocks encountered by an astonished Marty McFly in 1955 was the sight of a team of smiling, uniformed gas station attendants happily filling the tank and polishing every square inch of glass on a customer’s car. The scene contrasted the changes in the retail petroleum business experienced by customers in the mid-1980s. One can only wonder what someone suddenly transported from 1985 to 2020 would think about the present-day, high-tech, sophisticated convenience stores increasingly defining the retail petroleum experience.

Today’s retail petroleum convenience store model is an example of an industry committed to responding to the needs and demands of evolving customer expectations, shifting from the simple “filling station” of decades past and transforming a stop at a fuel pump into a broader retail experience. The convenience store environment is now about much more than a quick soft drink and a bag of snacks. Customer experience is being redefined by expectations for indoor seating, WiFi, greater selection of fresh foods, and a higher dimension of in-store ambience.

Architects and designers creating today’s retail petroleum convenience stores must recognize that change is being driven by the need to serve two different kinds of customers.

One is a product of today’s fast, immediate, technology-driven lifestyle. These “fast and furious” customers want a quick in-and-out, self-serve experience allowing them to scan, pay and get back on the road as quickly as possible.

Others are looking for a more robust and inviting retail experience, one offering a range of food and merchandise options as well as opportunities to slow down and enjoy a product in a laid-back, lounge environment reminiscent of what they might find at Starbuck’s.

For these customers, retail petroleum businesses are challenged to deliver a “wow factor.” That means facilities incorporating the technological savvy to accommodate the fast and furious, in-and-outer crowd while offering a sophisticated, inviting atmosphere that will appeal to “lingerers.”

Based on past experiences, many travelers expect to see dingy, poorly lit restrooms they might risk only if absolutely necessary. Today’s discriminating customers expect more, and indeed the restrooms in newer, more modern facilities sometimes rival the appearance and feel of fine hotel washrooms. Quality has increased exponentially, with glass tile, halo lighting, higher-end fixtures and other amenities. In an increasingly competitive market, such quality will be table stakes, not a nice-to-have. This is especially true in meeting the needs of health-conscious consumers in the age of COVID-19. No-touch surfaces and fixtures will be mandatory aspects of the customer experience.

In addition to raising the bar on general appearance and ambience, one of the most persistent challenges facing convenience store operators, whether they include a retail petroleum business, is that they often have very high annual energy costs. These can range from $6 to $14 per square foot, versus a commercial office building at around $2 per square foot. Interior and exterior lighting and refrigeration are the usual culprits, making them ideal targets for improvement and efficiencies.

Thankfully, today’s designers and architects can leverage a growing suite of energy-efficient materials and equipment in design and construction, resulting in stores being able to use 50% of the energy previously required to power spaces twice as large. Day lighting thanks to higher windows, and sensors that reduce power demand to compensate for a greater volume of natural lighting, can both reduce operating costs and allow consultants much greater design freedom.

Public and regulatory demands for alignment with a healthier and more energy conscious environment are also driving more progressive code requirements, many of which include the use of solar technologies. Architects, designers and retail petroleum clients are collaborating much more closely in constructing and operating facilities that are more energy focused and customer friendly. These trends will continue to drive fundamental changes in how these retail facilities are designed.

As the needs and desires of American consumers continue to evolve, so will opportunities presented to convenience store operators seeking to thrive in a new economy. For instance, an increasing fleet of electric vehicles might appear to be a threat to traditional fuel retailers. However, a growing number of electric vehicles will almost certainly drive the need for more fast-charging stations. In turn, this may give customers just the incentive to “hang out” in a customer-friendly convenience store longer than they might after filling up their gasoline-powered or diesel vehicles.

While the future of the retail petroleum convenience store may turn out to be much more different than what Marty McFly and Doc Brown might have imagined, operators with vision and creativity will find it to be promising indeed.