A small treat with huge implications.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the road and therefore have become quite familiar with the countless and ever-evolving motorway service stations that span the country.  It would be easy to fill a blog just on the mixed experiences I’ve had in service stations alone, but today I’d like to focus on a more positive experience at petrol station in Strensham Services, operated by BP on the M5 southbound.

Empty fuel tank

Us humans are creatures of habit.  60% of our shopping is done in the same stores, visited in the same order, having parked in the same car park we did last time.  Petrol stops are no different, we are known to create ‘service station stop-off’ rituals on regular routes.  Today, I’m on a regular business trip to South Wales; this particular service station is just over a third of the way there.  I treat the stop as a mini celebration, having passed the worst of the traffic around Birmingham (route includes M6, M42, M40).  As you have no doubt experienced, many service stations adopt a policy of shamelessly extracting as much money out of their customers as humanly possible, seemingly on the premise that they are a passing customer and they are unlikely to see them again.  This manifests itself in terms of giant sized grab bag crisps, overly priced sandwiches and meal deals, plus other random impulse buys.  There is a mis-match here as we know from habitual and ritual behaviour that people often use the same motorway services time and time again.

This is perhaps lesson 1:  Do your assumptions about the customer you serve actually play out, or are you serving somebody very different? 

Back to my journey and sales tale experience.  It’s the 17th of December and I’ve stopped for a coffee to go, after a pretty gruelling 1½ hours of traffic around Birmingham.  The usual cashier isn’t in today;  an Eastern European girl who I’ve built rapport with over the many, many years of visiting.  Today a very bright and bubbly member of staff was working.  I exchanged some pleasantries and we shared a joke around whether I needed the receipt and if George Osbourne (UK Chancellor of the Exchequer) would contribute towards this working coffee, she responded, “Why not? Everybody else does.”  I do like to see staff confident enough to engage and show personality.  The service went without a hiccup and as she gave me my coffee, she did something seemingly incidental, that had a surprisingly big impact.  She gave me a small treat (a star-shaped shortbread biscuit), carefully wrapped and clearly designed as a giveaway, on the grounds that it was too small to sell, but a perfectly sized compliment for my coffee.  So, a coffee station in a petrol station has given me a free biscuit, Is that it – you may be thinking?  Yes, but let us consider the implications of the gift and possible outcomes.

Free CookiesI am unaware of the specific motives of BP and Wild Cafe and why they decided to give these cookies away.  Was it goodwill, or did they have a wider commercial objective?  What I do know is that whether the outcomes were intended or not, the likely impact will be three-fold and largely very positive.

  1. In all of the stores I’ve visited in the run up to Christmas, world class department stores, premium retail brands, numerous petrol stations and service stations and many well known coffee shops nobody has given me anything.  This is the first store to give me a Christmas treat.  It is therefore, going to stand out.
  2. A treat or a gift makes us happy.  When was the last time you entered a petrol station shop and was made to feel happy?
  3. I got to try something I don’t usually buy here.

I don’t normally buy treats with my coffee and as it turned out, this shortbread biscuit was delicious.  They didn’t give me a 10% off my next coffee voucher or similar future discount, instead they got me to try something that I don’t normally consume in the store. This is a technique that smart reward card providers need to think about. (See this popular article on reward cards for more on this: Loyalty Schemes)

Whilst I can only speculate at the percentage of customers that see the store as I do – a provider of petrol and coffee only; having experienced this treat, and recognising it was the perfect complement and sugar fix at this time of the morning, I might now consider Wild Bean Cafe as a ‘coffee and treat stop’.  If this becomes a new ritual for me and other frequent customers, this could convert into a significant amount of new turnover.  As a retail consultant, increasing average spend will always be an area I explore early in a business I am helping grow, the benefits are huge and typically increased costs very low.

Handing out samples is nothing new, in a visit to Costco yesterday I got to try noodles from one station and a pasta dish from another.  Large store sample stations are slightly different, they are designed to enhance the store experience and trigger customers’ desire to indulge.  The fundamental difference is that customers stay in the store after trying the sample.  In a petrol station you have left when you consume the sample or treat.

Whilst the experience as small and as simple as described was very positive, there is still a way the store may have improved:

The sales assistant could have made more of the treat by the way that she presented it.  As previously stated, the girl was great, bright, bubbly and witty and the only thing missing from the presentation was to say something like, ‘here’s a little thank you from us for your custom. Merry Christmas.’ This would have made the whole experience even more powerful, and put to bed any questions of their motives.

In summary, a simple and relatively inexpensive promotion from BP and Wild Bean Café has secured its place as my pit stop of choice on journeys to South Wales.  On my next visit I will be asking myself, “would you like a little treat with that?” Let’s hope they have something similar on offer for sale and not snap-back to type and offer only industrial sized 9 inch cookie as a side order!

What can we learn:

Focusing on lifetime value of customers is essential for most retail businesses – even if the assumption is the customer is passing trade.

Incentives should drive increased average transaction value, rather than discount existing shopping behaviour.

When you have a great message, story or promotion, plan carefully how it will be presented.

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