Having worked on “Store of the Future” gas station projects all over the world, I often encounter similar professional scenarios: Clients have an existing network, an old design and a need to attract new consumers to get more out of their existing one. They all want “a store design,” “forecourt design,” “new food offer” or “site plan” that “needs to start rolling out next year but also will need to be relevant in 10 years.” In other words, they want a store of the future.
I love these projects. They are ambitious and necessary to help gas station companies and brands evolve. Reinvention is sometimes a goal, but moving the business is always a must. As creative director, one of the first things I aim to do is open a client’s eyes. After all, they may know their business inside and out and still not be students of the world. I caution them with this: “If you want to reinvent the idea of a gas station but all you look at are other gas stations, you’ll probably end up with a gas station.” For example, if we were organizing a best-in-class tour, we’d begin with visits to Wawa, Sheetz, Litro, Topaz and Repsol (that is, if we can make it around the world). But there is much more to learn by looking outside the industry as well.
All companies need to ask themselves the same questions: How do we speak to our consumers? How is our business organized? Why are we developing these technologies? The good news is that someone else may have already figured out the answer, or at least the approach. And often, it comes from an unexpected place.
While we plan and design stores, car washes and everything else at a gas station, I’d like to hone in on a few eye-opening, non-gas station innovations that we can learn from when thinking about forecourts:
What we can learn: Layout and Flow
Thriving Sonic locations can have, at times, more than a dozen cars pull up in a covered area, order food, be entertained by carhops or have the choice of patio seating or a drive-thru. And they do it all seamlessly.
What we can learn: Customization
Motorists drive through E-ZPass lanes in upwards of 40 miles per hour. Can we leverage today’s sensors to reveal which drivers are at our pumps, how much gas their car needs, what music they like and what type of fuel they purchase without having them take out their wallets?
What we can learn: Material
If your station is located in a warmer climate and doesn’t need to contend with snow, fabric architecture might be an interesting architectural trend to consider. It’s stable, cost-effective, and makes a bold brand statement.
What we can learn: Canopy Design
Who said a canopy has to have columns in the middle? If airplanes can maneuver around in these structures, so can cars and trucks.
What we can learn: At Pump Experience
The New York MTA is piloting a large, touchscreen kiosk that gives subway station alerts, information, news, local maps and third party apps. Sound like something your customers would want to experience while filling up? Yup.
(Innovation can also be inspired by the past. “Reach New York” is an installation from 1996 – and still active today – where simple motion sensors linked to musical sounds let waiting passengers on subway platforms entertain themselves and each other.)
What we can learn: Main ID sign
This isn’t just an ordinary sign but a sentence about the brand that screams at the top of its lungs. It’s got personality and impact and gusto. I love it.
Clearly, I’m only talking about the forecourt here. Inspiration for store design, layout, food service, technology and customer service are around us, everywhere. My advice to oil companies: Get out there and look the other way. Then, and only then, will you truly be a “store of the future.”