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Fuel Station
Energy & Commodities

Fuel Station 2025: Q&A on U.S.

Popular U.S. brands show how fuel stations can become destinations that are more than just places to fill up.

Masud Haq Kathryn Bonner
Masud Haq Kathryn Bonner
This article is part 4 of a 4 part series. Read rest of the articles here.

How will 2020 impact fuel stations? Trade restrictions and lockdowns have shifted consumption patterns and disrupted supply chains across the global fuel market, which is now expected to decline from $1.972 billion to $1.937 billion in 20201. But looking beyond 2020, the market is expected to recover and reach $2.195 billion in 2023.

2023-2.195 Billion

To explore what the fuel station will look like in 2025, we talked with Publicis Sapient energy and commodity experts in several geographies.

Masud Haq, senior vice president, and Kathryn Bonner, associate director, offered their view of the U.S. market. Their perspective? While some brands like Buc-ees have built loyal followings around their food, cleanliness and merchandise, many U.S. fuel stations still don’t use data to inform customer experiences, or aren’t using all of the data they have access to in order to build the right relationships and/or partnerships. They must also now focus on creating contactless and safer environments to continue bringing in customers.

 

Interview has been edited for style and clarity.

 

The U.S. is one of the world’s largest energy markets. What changes have we seen in the market in recent years?

Haq: In the past five years as a nation, the United States has taken a unique position in becoming more of an exporter of fuel and commodities versus being more of an importer. And a lot of that's tied to shale gas and some other natural gas domestic developments. Oil and gas companies can optimize supply because they have more leverage by having the supply locally.

You're starting to see a lot more people go to Costco or a local grocery to get gas. H-E-B is a big one in Texas where they've got a very strong brand-loyalty program with strong brand recognition and cheap costs compared to competitors.

 

Some U.S. brands like Buc-ees have a very loyal following. What can those brands teach the industry about customer experience?

Haq: The customer experience, in general, has not been a focus, but this is going to have to be central to everything a brand does going forward if it wants to grow. Internally, many fuel station brands don't have people with customer experience skills. Brands have had to take a leaf from outside of the energy industry, from consumer packaged goods (CPG), from retail, from telecom, and others. So they're starting to bring in that capability and hire people from those cross industries.

 

"The customer experience, in general, has not been a focus, but this is going to have to be central to everything a brand does going forward if it wants to grow."
Masud Haq, Senior Vice President at Publicis Sapient

What else about Buc-ees makes the brand resonate with people?

Bonner: People will go out of their way to stop or chart a trip that passes a Buc-ees. Buc-ees has reimagined the gas consumer experience and is primarily focused on the consumer since they don’t allow 18-wheeler trucks. From my personal experience, my nieces and nephews (and even my 70-year old father) are dying to go to Buc-ees to get a beef jerky or a cookie or a little swag item with the Buc-ees logo. I think you’ll see more brands like Buc-ees become a destination versus a place you have to stop to gas up. You’ll also see fresh and healthy food offerings and cleaner bathrooms. As they expand nationally, Buc-ees will shake up customer expectations of a travel center based on their uniquely branded food and product offerings, pleasant bathrooms and an experience that has led to a radical customer following that is seeking a fun and clean place to stop as they make their way down the highway. 

 

That’s interesting that Buc-ees is only focusing on the consumer. How does the customer experience currently differ across different customer segments?

Haq: Brands need to think about high-touch versus low-touch customers — high touch being B2B customers that visit a fuel station a few times a week and low touch being B2C or consumers who only visit a few times a month.

With high touch, there are some great examples of loyalty programs, but in the low-touch category, the overall loyalty experience is not mature. If you look at some of the stats from these oil companies, many consumers don’t use the loyalty program because they don’t get any benefits in return, given that oil companies don’t have the right data to understand what people want.

America Map

Some brands are working to improve the retail-store experience at fuel stations. But what about people who don’t want to leave their cars but are still looking for a great experience?

Haq: One way to think about the future is to consider why do I need to get out of the car and go into the convenience store? Why can't the convenience store come to me?

For example, while I'm filling gas, I want to also pick up a sandwich. If I can use voice-activation to order the sandwich and then somebody from the store walked over to my car with the sandwich, isn’t that even better than going into the store? That's a missed opportunity, and to some degree you could say the same for fuel as well.

Why do I need to go to a gas station? Why can't somebody come fill up my vehicle in the middle of the night while I’m sleeping so that way I don’t even have to go to a gas station? Some brands have had discussions about this as a way to expand the services they offer.

The other dimension in which they're expanding the experience and the services is to not look at it from a fuel perspective but to look at it from a mobility perspective. This means getting from Point A to Point B, particularly in urban areas. How do I ensure I have the mobility when I need it? You partner up with the Ubers and Lyfts of the world with professional drivers to make it a high-touch experience.

 

"One way to think about the future is to consider why do I need to get out of the car and go into the convenience store? Why can't the convenience store come to me?"
Masud Haq, Senior Vice President at Publicis Sapient

I would think that as brands reimagine the brand experience they’ll need a lot of data to be successful, right?

Haq and Bonner: Yes, with segmentation and personalization, you need a lot of data. You need to have a culture of collecting data that creates the right level of visibility into customer behaviors. And that's not what a lot of these companies are used to, and that’s the big internal shift in mindset. With one fuel retailer we’re working with, data is a unique advantage for them, as they own and operate the large majority of their assets. They’re the largest franchisor of Subway, for example, and they own and operate those stores. In terms of first-party data and third-party data, they have leverage in how they're applying that data to run the brand experience and create the high-touch customer experience that enables them to influence customer behaviors.

 

Fuel Station

 

Do brands know how to get the data they need?

Haq: No, many companies are at the early stages of collecting consumer data; they are collecting an email address, phone number, and maybe a credit card. But, they are not yet collecting behavior profiling so that they can start to think about behavior segmentation.

And then the other dimension is third-party data. They're used to buying property. They're even used to buying hardware and software, but they're not used to buying data such as third-party data.

Integrated oil companies need to think about the brand experience they want to create, and based on that, they need to look at not only the technology they need to create that experience but also look at how to enable that technology. They need to look at what data and insights are needed, and that drives the sourcing and curation of data. New privacy laws also need to be considered when trying to capture this data.

 

Fast forward to 2025. You pull into a fuel station. What's the biggest difference from today?

Bonner: The experience will be more frictionless. Will I even have to touch a gas pump? Do I even have to go into the store? Gas retailers can create a safer environment through contactless and also deliver a seamless digital experience and consistent service. A lot of the newer apps for gas retailers include mobile fueling, and perhaps there will be wider adoption of that. And maybe I’ll be able to order coffee or something in advance and have that delivered to my car while I’m filling up.

Haq: There’s a lot of talk about electric vehicles being the future, but I think self-driving cars will make the biggest difference.

On the commercial side, once self-driving trucks become established, I think it is likely that the long-haul journeys will be the first to be automated, then local drivers will collect their vehicles from a depot to deliver within a town or city. If your gas station is located just off the highway, the premises could be used as one of these depots for the digital scheduling of self-driving trucks. This will also make the professional driving job more appealing, as truck drivers won’t have to spend 3 or 4 weeks away from home.

Fuel Station

On the consumer side, gas stations will need to process as many self-driving cars as possible, as efficiently as possible. The customer journey is completely different. Customers will be able to send their car to the gas station to be re-filled and have a sandwich and drink picked up too. Their point-of-sale systems will need to be able to communicate with car manufacturers’ in-car systems, and oil companies can think about these partnerships now. Automation of processes, like payments at the gas station, will be so much more important if there is no driver to fill up the vehicle or buy items from the shop, otherwise you will need to have more staff to do those tasks.

 

Sources:

1. BCC Research, “Gasoline Stations Market Global Briefing 2020: Covid 19 Impact and Recovery,” June 2020

Masud Haq
Masud Haq
Senior Vice President
Kathryn Bonner
Kathryn Bonner
Associate Director

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