What Will The Forecourt of The Future Sell?
At some point in the near-ish future, electric vehicles (EV) will be more commonplace, and popping out to fill up the car might be an entirely different affair than it is today. What might that look like?
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In This Article:
Electric Vehicle Range
How far can today's EVs travel on a single charge? Jump to it →
Finding Charge Points
How do you find charge points, are there enough? Jump to it →
Customer Knowledge Revolution
How filling stations need to look for new products and services in data. Jump to it →
Data and Independent Fuel Retailers
How can independent fuel retailers compete in a new data world? Jump to it →
An (almost) Fictional Filling Future
A near sci-fi scenario of the near-future forecourt. Jump to it →
The Fuel Forecourt
Electric cars are a relatively new phenomena for many of us, yet most of us know of someone who has an electric vehicle, whether that's a Nissan Leaf, BMW i series, or a Tesla.
I've been on the periphery of conversations about EVs for a few years now, and two of the biggest challenges I keep hearing about are batteries and charging. Both of these issues combine to create one of the top 4 barriers to adoption; range anxiety.
In recent years Tesla has really pushed the envelope of both battery technology and car design to achieve a range that is comparable to many family diesel cars on the market today.
The chart below shows the range (distance) the top performing electric cars can travel before they need to be recharged. it should be noted that these ranges are as provided by the manufacturer and are achieved in controlled (lab) conditions, so in the real world, they might very well differ.
Refuelling Electric Vehicles vs Internal Combustion
The internal combustion engine has been around long enough for every driver (and want-to-be driver) to understand how vehicles of this nature need to be fuelled.
Most people tend to run their tanks from brim to the orange warning light before venturing to refuel. Of course, there are reasons to keep your tank topped up more regularly than that, but most of us wouldn't think of putting a litre in the tank now, just because we can.
But that's how many EV owners need to think, especially if they own a car with shorter range, or slower charging capabilities.
Finding Nearby Charging Points
Charging Points, unlike fuel stations, are not so common right now.
Sure, you can find them in out-of-town shopping centres, in some car-parks, and even in business parks, but these are few and far between and often require a trip to that location to top up the battery.
In an effort to solve this, companies like Zap-Map have popped up to help EV owners find charging points, and also to share/monetise their home charging points.
Related article: Will Electric Vehicles Take Over?
Is there still a place for fuel forecourts in an EV future?
There's a lot of talk about democratisation of charging, and how blockchain can help create a way to share energy, and create networks of residential and business property charging points. With these new decentralised charging options popping up, will we still see BP, Shell, Chevron and private filling stations along the roadside?
BCG and Arthur D Little think, yes, but they will be very different places than what we experience today. Fundamentally, fuel retailers will need to shift from selling fuel ("wetstock") to thinking about the customer, and the experience that customer is expecting.
Today when we pop to the filling station, it takes a minute or two to fill up the tank, and a few more minutes to complete the transaction. Typically, I'm done within five minutes, any longer and it's "a drag". Charging batteries takes longer, much longer, and even if we imagine we won't stay for a full charge (which could take hours), the amount of time required to top-up the car is going to be more than it is today.
With that in mind, we'll see more charging points popping up in places people naturally have higher dwell times, such as shipping centres and restaurants, and we'll also see filling station evolve to encourage higher dwell times.
Filling stations will become destinations in their own right, and we're seeing this already. Many forecourts are already filling the need for local convenience stores, many are re-developing their space to accommodate coffee shops, restaurants and even places for people to open their laptops and settle down to do a little work.
As the fuel mix provided by filling stations changes to include more alternative fuels (such as electric and hydrogen), they will need to adapt their offerings to both suit the new needs of their customers, and to attract new types of customers. For this, data will be crucial.
The Forecourt Customer Knowledge Revolution
Around the time Shell introduced their Pay at Pump application (circa 2015) , I was speaking with someone from a well known fuel company who was responsible for innovation in their retail sector, e.g. filling station forecourts.
They told me that there was a real focus on understanding customer behaviour in ways they had never thought of before, because the customer of the future will not be loyal to a brand and they will not interact with those brands in the same way they do today. They confirmed that the applications launching from several fuel companies, were indeed a way to build that one-to-one relationship with the customer, with the intention of being able to offer non-fuel services and products both, on and off the forecourt.
What About Independent Fuel Retailers?
The chart above from research conducted by the RAC Foundation shows that independent retailers were already struggling to compete against the big brands, with significant numbers closing down before 2011. In more recent times, competition and market forces (including COVID-19) have continued to take their toll.
These independent retailers are going to be crucial in the future of electric vehicles, as they are often found in out-of-the-way locations, in countryside communities, in tourist and vacation hotspots. But as we move to a world where the role of a forecourt changes to a "destination" rather than a deviation, and the product moves from fuel to data, how will these independents compete against the big budget brands who have invested billions into research and development?
Recently I've heard of a company that might have part of the answer, read on.
Transforming from a Wetstock to a Data Business
Today, more than ever, in the face of the rapid pace of technology evolution and global events like the pandemic, companies thrive or die on their ability to reinvent themselves.
The company I found, SureSite, seems to be one of those companies that falls on the thrive side of the fence.
SureSite have been providing training, fuel (aka "wetstock") management, health and safety and credit card services to independent fuel retailers in the UK for more than two decades, and have more than 2,000 customers across the country.
Whilst the writing is currently being written on the proverbial wall for wetstock retailers, as mentioned above, the value of understanding customer behaviour and building data-driven relationships with customers on and off the forecourt has never been more important.
Suresite seem to be in a strong position to be able to help independent retailers understand customer behaviour through their payment services provision.
Let's take a look at how this might work in a fictitious EV charging forecourt of the future...
Fictional EV Forecourt Future
It's 3pm on Thursday and I'm in my car, between places.
My onboard driver assist system warns me that my range is less than 100Km, and that I should think about a stopping to charge soon, because it's 150km until home. It also tells me I have a conference call to take, suggests three nearby charging stations that have capacity for me now, and reminds me I have to pick up milk and bread before getting home.
One of the nearby charging points is an independent retailer, which is offering a free high-speed internet connection from a private table in their cafe (perhaps like this). This would be perfect for my conference call, so I hit "Go" on the navigation.
I silently roll up to the forecourt, and let my car park itself next to the charger. As I approach the pump, the built-in cameras on the car scan the QR code on the station, and the on-board display offers me three charging options available for my car;
- Regular (50km of charge, duration 1.5hrs)
- Premium (100km of charge, duration 1 hr, including free high speed wifi and a beverage)
- Performance (super fast charging, 100km in just 30 minutes)
I've got a conference call to take, so I know I'll be at least an hour and the wifi and coffee sound good, so I take Premium.
With the car settled in, I settle into my private table in the coffee shop. I tap my phone on the table, reserving it for the next hour using the built in near field communications (NFC) capability. This also activates my free wifi and pops up a menu for me to choose my complimentary beverage.
A few minutes later, my double espresso arrives, along with the sandwich I also ordered, and I'm ready to join the video call.
As my call is coming to an end, my phone alerts me that the car is charged, and asks if there is anything else I need for the journey, helpfully suggesting I think about whether I have everything I need at home. I remember needed milk and bread, and tap the option on the screen.
Whilst I'm packing my laptop away, the barrister comes to clean away my cup, and leaves the milk and bread I ordered on the table in front of me.
Back in the car, I am refuelled, the car is topped up, the fridge will also be stocked. A message appears on the on-board screen thanking me for my custom, and asking me to provide a star-rating for my experience. Today it's 5 stars!
This Isn't Science Fiction
The scenario I painted above might seem like something from a sci-fi series, but its not too far fetched at all.
The information needed to make the recommendations, to understand customer behaviour and to feed into artificial intelligence algorithms to help guess consumer need is already being captured by companies like Suresite.
The contactless point of sale options (NFC and QR codes) are already available from companies like Thyngs, and the integration between smartphone and in-car systems is already widely available using both Apple and Android operating systems.
What's needed to make this a reality is vision and partnership - now, that's up to you...
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