Brand experience takes centre stage in ‘new convenience retail’

By   Fiona Briggs   21 Aug 2019

By Fiona Briggs 21 Aug 2019

Experience is becoming the new table stakes in convenience retail, according to Joe Bona, president of New York-based global design and consulting firm, Bona Design Lab.

While online is admittedly having an impact on retail, bricks and mortar stores are far from dead, he maintains. “People want to engage in a meaningful experience. Retailers around the globe understand that when people do take the time to go into a store, it’s about the experience and emotional connections: the things that make people feel good about the space,” he says.

“Convenience and speed were the old table stakes,” Bona continues. Cash rich and time poor customers want to get in and out of a store in a hurry, so there is a common knowledge that everyone wants to be convenient, he says. “But experience is becoming the new table stakes and, if you do not deliver, people will discount you,” he adds.

In Europe, Bona rates Applegreen as a convenience retailer that is doing a great job of delivering on brand experience. “If you go into their stores there’s great attention to detail and lots of thoughtful touches,” he says. “They curate special merchandising categories that do not use traditional metal gondolas, for instance. They put great care into how they want customers to navigate through their store, access the entire offer and deliver a great experience.”

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Circle K has upped its game in Europe too, Bona says; while Spar stores around the world “do amazing things” and Repsol has a “beautifully designed store” in Spain. However, design is only half of the equation, Bona adds. “Customers are smarter than we are and if the stores are well designed but the offer is not good and the standards are poor, they will not come back – you have to get the other bits right as well.”

Larger locations and EV

The thirst for providing a better experience in foodservice is putting pressure on retailers globally, Bona says. While US retailers typically have larger lots, there’s still a greater impact on parking. “It’s more challenging to become a destination for food,” Bona says. “The kitchen must be bigger and the store room needs a greater capacity. Increasing store footprints also puts more pressure on the site itself with circulation and more parking spaces. New generation ‘foodvenience’ facilities require bigger footprints and shoe horning that into small legacy stores is not so easy,” he says.

The advent of electric vehicles is also poised to impact site and store size, Bona adds. Even with quick charging units, customers will still be spending 10-15 minutes at a location. That will require greater car parking capacity and somewhere to sit in store, putting pressure on seating and bigger restrooms. “That will start to dictate how people start to think about petrol stations and convenience stores,” Bona says.


While parts of Europe and Asia are tipped to develop the right infrastructure to move more quickly towards EV versus the US, for example, it is a worldwide trend. Bona references the increasing amount of Teslas he sees in his home market and the fact every major automobile company has at least one EV in their range. “It will be a while before it’s really mainstream in the US but if you are not thinking about that, it will sneak up behind you one day,” he says.


Customization and control

Winning convenience store formats will be those who enable their customers to be in more control of what they eat, Bona says. “We’ve done a lot of consumer research and a lot of what we hear about is the idea of healthy and fresh when it comes to food,” he says. If consumers see their food made in front of them and/or have the opportunity to customize it, their perception is that it’s healthier, he adds.

Pret a Manger has nailed the daily freshly prepared food perception even though you never see the food being actually prepared, according to Bona. “I have no hesitation to go to Pret as they have convinced many of us believers that made today – gone today is not just a mantra. They have small portion sizes, for example, and are thoughtful in so many ways. There’s a lot to learn from their grab and go concept and their story telling and packaging is brilliant.”

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Convenience stores can weave some of that Pret magic with design cues such as open kitchens and visible ovens, even if they are just preparing for grab and go, Bona says.

Lessons can also be learnt from restaurants who use design to create ambience and a sense of place, Bona says. “When you walk into a restaurant you think the food is delicious before you see the menu. The details and ambience sell the story you are trying to create.”


New technology

Technology is also shaping new-look convenience stores but it needs to be entirely seamless, so as to go unnoticed, as with Amazon Go, Bona reports.


The design veteran reckons mobile and/or walk in and walk out technology will become mainstream with a combination of self checkout, standalone kiosks and iPads being deployed in store. “Technology ultimately will enable customers to walk into a store, order what they want digitally, pick up the order and just walk out.” That will be the cost of doing business, he says. If a retailer does not offer Apple Pay or basic technology features then people will go where there feel it’s more convenient. “Walk in, walk out technology is a little ways down the road but it will be more mainstream at some point in future,” Bona says.


Local and community

Convenience retailers are increasingly harnessing the power of localness and community within their store design and food offer. According to Bona, it ensures a truly differentiated brand experience. Bona Design Lab has introduced both local design and food elements in its work with Shell Select’s first store in Louisville, KY.


The design company opted for a subtler approach to integrating a sense of community into the store environment through an artist-rendered wall mural that highlights some of the historic and landmark features of the city. “We wanted to keep the sensitivity of being a local retailer and part of a community,” Bona says. From a food perspective, meanwhile, some of the featured menu items include Jake’s sausage, a locally sourced and premium sausage (it has been featured in Food & Wine) with strong loyalty amongst Louisville consumers. The store also serves an “Ale 8” pulled pork sandwich, named for a local ginger and citrus soft drink under that brand. “Tapping into these types of unique, but specifically local tastes, is a great way to differentiate yourself and build loyalty at the same time,” Bona says.



As to the future of forecourt and convenience store design, Bona thinks there’s huge opportunity for change, differentiation and disruption. “If you look back at each decade over the past 50-60 years, very little has changed in layout, functionality and customer experience of the the forecourt,” he says. “Imagine how Apple, Google or Amazon might rethink the fueling experience – they would not be restrained by what they know, but rather would be free to think about the possibilities of what they don’t know.” Refueling is a chore, which people don’t really enjoy doing, he continues.

“There’s got to be ways to change that experience. But what if design could alter customer perceptions through interactive technologies that lead to enhance service levels, LED lighting that changes by time of day or by season to create ambience, customizable additive options, hoses without pumps, a robotic car valet for value-added items like air fresheners?”

The human element such as ensuring hand sanitizers and windscreen washing facilities are filled and paper towels are fully stocked is also key, Bona adds. “Sometimes little things like that could make a huge difference – the whole forecourt is ripe for disruption. Disruptors will not be thinking about the pump or transaction but how they can get people moving quickly and on their way, helping out with the chores in their lives,” he says.