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NOCO HOPING NEW TECHNOLOGY PUMPS UP SALES

The next litmus test of how much business consumers want to conduct at the gas pump has been launched in Western New York.

Noco Express Shops, the Town of Tonawanda-based chain with 50 stores, recently installed pumps with computer chips and touch screens that sell store merchandise.

A hurried commuter with a credit card can order and pay for a 16-ounce coffee, 20-ounce soda, bag of pretzels or any of 40 other menu items at the pump. The customer then grabs the goods from the store and flashes the pump-generated receipt at the cashier.

Noco is one of the first chains in the nation to install the new technology. The company is betting customers on the go will buy more merchandise if they don't have to wait behind a long line of Lotto players.

"This obviously is an experiment and the results will be closely watched by other retailers around the state to see if this type of technology is accepted by customers," said Jim Calvin, executive director of the New York Association of Convenience Stores.

The target market for the technology is primarily the younger consumers who are comfortable conducting business on computer screens. Fifteen local Noco stores have the computer-enhanced pumps.

Initial use has been slow at stores in Kenmore and the Town of Tonawanda, which tend to serve an older clientele, but younger customers in the Amherst area are catching on to the grab-and-go system.

"It will probably scare people at first, so it will take awhile to catch on. The main thing is, as long as they are not confusing people, then people will probably use it," said a middle-aged Tonawanda resident who prefers paying cash when filling his pick-up truck.

The chain will start getting a good indication of how popular the new pumps are next week, when a flood of students and faculty begin rushing back to local high schools and colleges.

"I think speed of transaction is very important to our customers," said Robert Newman, president of Noco Express Shops.

Some consumers have set habits. They like to pay cash and long for the days of full service stations which pumped gas, checked oil and cleaned windshields, Newman said.

But commuters, traveling sales representatives and the "dot.com" crowd like the convenience technology offers, Newman said.

Johanna Vaccaro, a 23-year-old Buffalo resident who works for a local high-tech company, exemplifies the target market. Although Ms. Vaccaro paid cash Thursday when filling her red Jeep Cherokee and buying a Snapple beverage at the Noco on Sheridan Drive in the Town of Tonawanda, she likes the new pumps.

"I would do coffee and stuff like that. It's a lot easier if you're in a hurry," Ms. Vaccaro said.

Angela Chambers, a Grand Island resident in her 40s, has started buying a coffee while filling her Buick Century.

"I love them. They're so fast. I'm usually doing it on the way to work," the U.S. Customs Service employee said.

The grab-and-go pumps were manufactured by Gilbarco Inc., of Greensboro, N.C. The smart screens are the latest innovation for an industry trying to meet demands of a generation which eats microwaved food while catching quick news headlines on CNN.

Mobil shops have increased loyalty from some customers through a new "speed pass" system which automatically bills gas sales to the customer's credit card.

Executives at a national industry publication also said the Noco strategy will be closely watched. The new technology is all about increasing merchandise sales by preventing long lines from scaring off customers.

"Gasoline margins are pretty tight right now, so stores are all looking for ways to increase their merchandise sales," said Maureen Azzato, editorial director for the New York City-based Convenience Store News.

Noco tried testing the pumps at a few locations four months ago but had too many problems. Newman said the computer screens are now reliable.

"I'm very confident now. We've run the daylights out of it. It was like anything when you start out, there were some bugs in the system," Newman said.

The new system poses several challenges. The touch screen prompts users to make selections, which requires customers to feel their way through the first time. Customers must hit a "done" button four or five times to back their way out of the system and complete the order.

The order has to be completed so the machine can print the receipt. Inside the store, the clerk's terminal indicates a consumer has made a pump purchase.

Newman said Noco has no official policy on whether the customer actually has to present the receipt to the cashier, which would force time standing in line. Store employees have been told to use their best judgment when a customer grabs an item and walks out, Newman said.

The system could potentially generate theft problems. One customer tried to walk out with a six-pack of beer by telling the cashier he paid at the pump. No beer, cigarettes or proof-of-age products are on the pump product menu.

The Noco chain is placing a big bet on the grab-and-go system, investing about $75,000 at each store for new technology.

"It will be a substantial investment when we get our 50 stores done," Newman said.

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