C-store chains are betting on retail media in 2023. But at what cost?

    This story is the second in a series on key trends that will impact c-stores in 2023.

    Art Sebastian and his team of digital marketers weren’t floored when they saw the advertising landscape quickly changing a few years ago. As consumers were shopping online more than ever, data privacy became increasingly important and companies began deprecating third-party cookies.

    “It’s no surprise that brands were looking for advertising opportunities where there was higher ROI,” said Sebastian, vice president of digital experiences for Casey’s General Stores.

    More than two years later — after building its digital ordering experience, implementing customer-facing experiences and even tapping into artificial intelligence to enhance its shopper insights — Casey’s is debuting its retail media network this year. It’s the second major U.S. c-store chain to do so, behind 7-Eleven.

    The network, Casey’s Access, offers CPG companies and other vendors access to Casey’s first-party customer data. Like with 7-Eleven’s retail media network, vendors in the program can then use that data to create and target relevant promotions, offers and other marketing content back through the network to customers.

    For many c-store operators, retail media networks may be an enigma. But Emarketer estimates that by 2024, more than $61 billion in digital advertising will flow through retail media networks.

    “Retail media has been a massive secular trend in marketing, and depending on the analysts that you believe, it’s either going to be the fastest- or second-fastest-growing channel amongst all marketing budgets,” said Michael Greene, senior vice president of global vertical strategy for commerce media company Criteo. “You’re reaching consumers at the most important time in their shopping journey — when they’re going to buy.”

    Retail media networks promise to be one of the shiniest new toys for c-store operators in 2023, bringing plenty of new growth and opportunities. But alongside its potential rewards come challenges and risks, experts say.

    Frequent visits and impulse buys

    In distinguishing from other retail media-focused industries like grocery and big-box retailers, c-store operators have a few advantages. One of those is the frequency with which their core customers visit.

    “In grocery, you’re thrilled if your guest is in your store once every seven to 10 days to stock up,” said Sebastian, who spent two decades at grocers like Jewel Osco, Albertsons and Meijer before joining Casey’s in 2018. By contrast, the best c-store guests make multiple trips a week, he said, “so that means that there is a high level of frequency of the relationship between the guest and the brand.”

    Sebastian noted that this frequency means c-stores have a higher likelihood of getting their ads in front of guests — and engaging them — more often than other retailers.

    “I think that’s super unique for our channel,” he said.

    When consumers visit c-stores, they’re often swayed by impulse purchases. This, too, can play to the industry’s advantage with retail media, said Jordan Berke, founder and CEO of Tomorrow Retail Consulting. 

    Berke noted that since c-stores are all about immediate consumption, advertisers can drive high margins because customers will likely visit a c-store within hours of seeing a product advertised. He suggested c-store-based retail media give advertisers the chance to market products that benefit from this “immediate top-of-mind mentality.” 

    “It’s not like a planned purchase,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Now I need it.’”

    Fuel represents another touchpoint c-store retailers can utilize in their retail media efforts, Berke said.

    Casey’s is already tapping into fuel trips with Casey’s Access, having planned for this since it installed video screens at its fuel pumps years ago, Sebastian said.

    “We did that intentionally because we knew that at some point, we would want to light those screens up with personalized content,” he said.

    Gas trips represent an opportunity for c-stores to tie in retail media.


    Sebastian noted the importance of c-store retailers taking advantage of the dwell time created by gas trips in relation to in-store media.

    “If your tank is empty, and you’ve engaged the pump and you’re fueling, we’ve got a captive audience and they’re already on the property,” he said. “Delivering the right content is a huge opportunity to drive forecourt in-store conversion.”

    Paul Brenner, president and chief strategy officer for Vibenomics, a company that powers audio in-store for businesses as part of their retail media networks, also sees fuel as a big retail media opportunity for c-stores. But he acknowledged that retailers must better connect the entertainment and ads at the pump with the products inside the store, calling fuel stations “programmatic clearing houses.”

    “If you’re going to take advantage of the pump, you’re going to have to do more creative things to drive people into the store,” he said. “It’s got to be a continuation of the experience.”


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