Over the last year I’ve become obsessed by what we Brits would call “petrol stations” a.k.a. gas stations. They are a great jumping off spot for introducing new technology to the public because people tend to buy gas so regularly, frequency = stickiness = adoption. Technologists are like rock-stars (go with me on this) … while they have a lot less sex and drugs … both are temperamental artists who generally want lots of people to experience their work. The average American visits a C-Store every other day. What better place to create technology that actually gets used and changes people’s lives.
There is a whole ecosystem of technology vendors and a lot more complexity in the structure of the businesses that own and operate the stations than you might think. Companies like Gilbarco have huge reach and influence, they have gas pumps on the forecourt of the majority of gas stations around the world, fuel tanks underneath, point of sales systems in the store, wiring between all those things and have even acquired advertising networks that can monetize all this wiring in innovative ways. They look at the payment processors with envy because of their recurring revenue streams. This is spurring these companies with roots in industrial revolution style manufacturing to push forward as fast as they can into cloud services and wireless.
The other key component of this landscape is the retailer. The big oil companies sold off their physical stores and generally license their brand to the merchants that really own the stores making them use their payments systems to process credit card payments so they can take their cut to pay for the gas before the merchants gets theirs. This also allows them cream off all the profits further upstream, leaving the poor old merchants running on razor thin margins, responsible for keeping us, the general public as happy as they can with minimum wage workers, selling a commodity product. What a nightmare of a business that is. The consequences of this are that on one hand, the small merchants who make up the bulk of the industry are hungry for differentiation but don’t have a lot of resources to work with.
The big oil companies, with the brands we are all familiar with want to innovate too but don’t actually own the stores required to implement their plans. The real innovators are the mid sized merchants with 500 or so stores. They own everything they need to execute new retail concepts and have usually adopted high concept strategies with an emphasis on service, branding and the customer experience e.g. Cumberland Farms, QT, Speedway and RaceTrac.
These mid-sized players are the firms with cool mobile apps that actually do something fun or useful. They are experimenting with augmented reality, loyalty points, mobile payments at the pump and are the ones I would expect to start putting beacons in their gas pumps.