Putting digital transformation to the pandemic test - how Casey's convenience stores delivered for its customers

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed November 18, 2020 Audio version
Summary:
Readers know I'm not infatuated with the lofty phrases of "customer experience." But making a difference for customers in a world turned upside down - I'm up for that story anytime. Casey's convenience stores faced the pandemic economy head on, with the help of partners like SAP CX.

art sebastian of caseys
(Art Sebastian of Casey's talking shop)

The pandemic put storefronts under duress. Almost immediately, consumers' preferences shifted. Have a mobile app and pickup options? Great. Don't have that yet? Then you're back on your heels.

Casey's convenience stores went through a different kind of consumer stress test. New mobile apps were already out prior to COVID-19. But how well would their digital transformations hold up?

To find out, I got on a video call with Art Sebastian, Casey's VP of Digital Experience.

Before I go on, I need to make something clear: I've never been to a Casey's, but they sound a bit different than the U.S. convenience stores I grew up with. You know, the kind where the same hot dogs are grilling on the roller for twelve hours at a time, and the brick-like microwaveable pizza is built for the apocalypse.

From what I gather from Sebastian, Casey's is a different vibe altogether. Casey's operates a chain of 2,200 convenience stores in the midwestern and southern U.S. As for their famous pizza, well, I had to ask Sebastian to stop talking about it - it's definitely not on my diet. Casey's convenience store pizza even scored a review in Food & Wine:

You're starting with a relatively thin crust, in the Midwest tradition, allowing the pleasantly seasoned, not-overly-sugared tomato sauce to take front and center...

Okay -  that's enough of that; I am trying to enjoy some yogurt while I write this. At Casey's, you can customize your pizza from scratch via your mobile device, but we'll get to that. Let's start with Sebastian - after all, you don't run into a VP of Digital Experience working for a convenience store chain every day. How does he fit into the picture? As Sebastian told me:

I joined the company literally about two years ago. I was recruited as part of the digital transformation. When I got here, we really didn't have a good handle on the technology that drives our customer-facing experiences.

Towards an enterprise-grade technology stack

Time for a change. One goal within the marketing organization? Make the brand more modern and contemporary, starting with "digital experiences." As Sebastian recalls, "We had a lot of work ahead of us." One key decision? Pick the right technology partners:

SAP was was one of them. We needed a leading partner to enable our e-commerce and ordering experiences.

But Sebastian's team didn't just want to build a mobile app. They wanted a platform:

We built what we proudly call our enterprise-grade technology stack... We shifted and took a much more modern approach with a microservices layer, leveraging API's to move data across our systems.

First step? Launch the new web site, quickly followed by native iOS and Android apps. The mobile business grew. Within five months of launch, Casey's was generating more than 60% of its revenue from the mobile app. Nudging closer to the events that changed all of our lives, Casey's launched a new loyalty program called Casey's Rewards in January of this year. Sebastian:

At this point, we have a new CRM; we have a new website, new mobile apps, new in-store kitchen technology to support telephone orders, which is still a big business - and a brand new loyalty program. We are feeling like, "We've got this thing going; February was an amazing month for us from a business perspective.

Enter the transformation gut check - pandemic times

And then the world changed. Overnight, people stayed at home. But not Casey's.

Here at Casey's, we're fortunate to be an essential business. I've got friends who work in non-essential businesses who are, very, very talented, but you know, they are out of work right now. And so we're very fortunate in the company, and what we can do for our communities and our customers.

All true - though I'd add, as a non-essential worker lucky to be typing away for biscuits right now, essential workers show a daily courage that humbles me. Anyhow, the Casey's team pressed on:

And so we stayed open, and [turned to] this technology stack that we put in place. The timing worked out well for us, because we built the stack to be flexible in nature. We continue to have a good roadmap of enhancements.

So how did Casey's do under duress? First job: push the accelerator on digital and low-contact services:

As the pandemic hit, we quickly made choices about where we would invest our time and energy. We pivoted our innovation agenda, and we launched things like no-contact delivery. We also expanded delivery with third-party partners.

If you want a single customer view, adding a partner isn't just adding a name to the list:

While that might sound easy, there's a lot of technical work in the background, because those were integrated experiences. We launched curbside pickup in 2,200 stores.

I've expressed skepticism about how much getting an early start on digital transformation truly helped companies during the pandemic. Well, here is a proof point where it made all the difference:

We were in a good spot during a really bad time. We were able to keep the business going, and keep customers engaged.

As Sebastian says, they did pay a price - but that was before the transformation.

The price we paid is that we were behind on the technology for many years and decades. Prior to starting the transformation two years ago, we were on a bunch of disparate, white-label, non-integrated, non-seamless, full-of-friction systems.

So that's where we were at. Now, the company did fine - we just didn't have this robust digital presence. That's the price we paid for being late to the game in the digital space, but it allowed us to be selective with our partners -  and to build it in a very modern way.

Being able to create your own pizza - you might not think that would be a key service SAP would support - or one that becomes vital during the pandemic. But that was indeed the case.

You can customize a pizza build from scratch - half this, half that, a quarter this. Pick all kinds of ingredients, and it's easy to use. It's very intuitive. That was important pre-pandemic. But it's even more important during the pandemic. Why?  Because ordering and eating at home - "Oh, great, create your own experience" - it became front and center; it popped even more. We're glad that we had that capability.

The ordering system, built on SAP Commerce Cloud, was flexible enough to roll out features quickly. Prior to the pandemic, the app and web site was geared towards pizza and prepared foods. When the pandemic hit, Sebastian's team pushed to get a couple hundred grocery items available quickly. Sebastian:

SAP's simple back office configuration tool allowed my team, in a matter of a couple of weeks, to set up a couple hundred SKUs: cereal, soup, medicine, milk, bread, and get that all set.

Consumers' no-contact needs put immediate pressure on Sebastian's team. That's the thing about pre-pandemic transformations: innovations like no-contact might have been on the roadmap, but probably further out. Now you're scrambling - and your so-called agility is tested. As Sebastian told me:

Once we saw that need arise, the typical timeframe could take weeks and months... We didn't have that time - we did ours back in April. So, we moved pretty quickly; the system allowed us to do that.

Delivery was another urgent project. 1,000 Casey's stores had delivery pre-pandemic. The partnership with Doordash quickly extended that, but it needed to be integrated back into SAP hybris. A microservices API layer made that possible. Yes, that's "headless commerce" in action.

Doordash orders come in, Mulesoft makes the API call, and moves it over to SAP hybris. In that headless commerce unit I reference for the order management system in our store, it seamlessly places all orders onto that unit. So are folks working in a kitchen - they don't care if it's coming from Doordash or if it's coming from a customer, or where it's coming from.

Why SAP CX?

SAP is not necessarily the first vendor that comes to mind when you think CX. But Sebastian saw a perfect CX fit, including the feature-rich applications SAP fleshed out from the acquisitions of hybris (e-commerce) and Gigya (identity management). With SAP Gigya (now called SAP Customer Data Cloud) providing the single sign-on and social sign-on, Sebastian says the UI is easy for customers. Another thing Sebastian likes about SAP: the employee UX side, too often overlooked on CX projects:

Even the back office, which is almost never talked about, the configuration tools that SAP offers team members to operate from - we call it our hybris cockpit. I've got people in there configuring assortment and pricing. It's just easy to use. So I feel like SAP has made it easy for the user, whether it's our employees operating it, and then easy for the user in terms of our customers.

The wrap - lessons for the road

During the call, Sebastian reflected on lessons learned so far. Some of the standouts:

  • Native mobile apps are a must.
  • Choose the right partner.
  • Customers should be involved in application design via focus groups or input sessions.
  • It doesn't matter if your tech is legacy - now you have the opportunity to leapfrog into a microservices-based architecture, and quick delivery of customer applications.
  • Don't bloat your app with features - built simple and visually appealing inspiring apps (see this phone display of Casey's pizza ordering). Example of winning design: a reorder/save option that logs your credit card info for easy re-order.

I'm not a fan of trying to pull silver lining out of COVID-19. But I will say this: these kinds of interviews are incredibly refreshing. Instead of talking about how the magic of digital drives growth, and how automation reduces costs, we're judging ourselves by a different standard: did we make a difference in the lives of our customers and employees? Yes, a modern back end drives that, but it's a means to a different end. If we can pull that off, and keep that sense of humanity and service, the ROI will (usually) come along for the ride.