While operators already managed micro markets with the highest standards of cleanliness, the COVID-19 pandemic has made consumers hyperaware of the dangers of touching an unclean surface. As the workforce returns amid the pandemic, operators need to make sure that micro market customers feel safe while purchasing food and beverages.
“Micro market operators have always kept their markets clean and safe for customers,” explained Linde Hutson, director of marketing and communications at 365 Retail Markets. “They’ve always had the highest cleaning standards, but now they’re talking about it more so people feel comfortable returning.”
Mike Coffey, chief strategy and innovation officer at Canteen, advises that operators highlight the CDC’s safety guidelines when communicating with clients.
“According to the CDC, foodservice and packaged goods are some of the lowest-risk categories for COVID transmission,” Coffey said. “In addition to the signage we are all putting up in our markets, if we can get the message out as an industry that packaged goods are low-risk, that’s going to go a long way.”
Clear communication with clients and customers
Communicating enhanced cleaning and sanitization guidelines is a necessary step to creating a welcoming experience for micro market clients and customers.
“Beyond solid cleaning processes, operators should proactively communicate to host locations and treat them as a partner,” explained John Reilly, president of Avanti Markets. “Anything that an operator can do to maximize the perceptions of safety and cleanliness within the market may help. For example, posting a joint cleaning commitment within the market shows partnership between the operator and company, while visible kiosk commercials or flyers on cleaning, handwashing or mask wearing could lend extra peace of mind to market users.”
Reilly noted that some of Avanti’s operators are selling hand sanitizer, wipes and masks in their micro markets. Operators also need to use EPA-approved disinfectants to kill viruses and bacteria when servicing market locations.
“What most people don’t realize is that to really disinfect the space, you need time for those chemical agents to sit on the contact surfaces for anywhere between 3-10 minutes,” Coffey said. “It’s not a wipe that disinfects; it’s an agent that’s placed on an environ- ment and then wiped afterward.
Messaging to clients and their employees can communicated in various ways.
“We have the ability to do advertising on all of our devices, and we’re seeing some of the more savvy operators create an explanation of what they’re doing back in the warehouse and in the micro market that they’re servicing,” explained Ryan McWhirter, vice president of product management at 365 Retail Markets. “I think that goes a long way to lessen the anxiety of consumers who walk in and don’t know what’s happened before they got in there.”
McWhirter added that 365 distributed a guide to customers early in the pandemic, advising how to clean the different screens the company offers.
Coffey recommended that operators inform clients about how they’re running a safe business internally.
“It’s important to tell the story of how you’re protecting your associates and your consumers,” Coffey said. “For Canteen, it’s prescreening our associates at our offices every day with temperature checks, as well as providing them with the necessary PPE to keep them safe. And for the safety of our consumers, we’re focused on two levels of disinfectant. We disinfect the micro market and all high-touch surfaces before service, and then we disinfect it one more time when we leave, after we’ve serviced the market.”
Reilly said that Avanti also provided its operators suggested cleaning guidelines and templates for flyers and kiosk commercials to keep cleaning commitments top-of-mind for customers. The company also distributed a helpful “Back to Business Guide” to its operators, detailing 10 steps — with accompanying resources — operators should take to safely reopen micro markets.
Contactless solutions for kiosks
Kiosk screens are usually the most-touched surface in a micro market. Fortunately, before the COVID-19 pandemic, technology suppliers were already offering contactless solutions to reduce wait times and streamline the checkout process.
All of our kiosks have always been able to be interacted with in a touchless nature,” McWhirter said. “That was originally created for the sake of speed of the transaction, and it also allows you to not have to touch the kiosk, which was conveniently there for us already when [COVID] started to happen.”
McWhirter said that 365 redesigned the layout of the kiosk screen’s user interface and payment options, prominently highlighting the touchless options so customers can see them and determine whether they want to pay with their loyalty account or a credit/debit card instead of using the fingerprint reader. 365 also offers Touchless Transaction Technologies through its 365Pay app and the 365Beacon.
“The 365Pay app is the best thing to use right now for a number of reasons,” McWhirter said. “We have the 365Beacon, which is a way to allow our app to scan and pay for products using your cell phone — you don’t even need a kiosk in that case — or you can complement a kiosk with it.”
McWhirter said that between March and May 2020, the company sold more than 500 Beacons, which is a 300% increase over what they sold in the prior three months.
“It’s definitely a signal that mobile is here to stay, and we’re seeing a lot of operators install Beacons not only in new micro markets but also in existing micro markets that previously didn’t have that feature enabled,” he added. “We’re really bullish about the Beacon and scan and pay, and we expect that trend to continue. That 300% increase — it’s not falling down, even as people come back to work, because now operators are embracing mobile.”
365 has also partnered with loss prevention technology company Panoptyc to keep micro markets safe from theft and offer different types of styluses and cleaning materials to customers. Earlier this year, Panoptyc launched a new copper stylus that eliminates the fingerprint reader function on the kiosk. 365 is offering this copper stylus with every new kiosk.
“Copper has been used as an antibacterial solution for a very long time,” explained Mac Bolak, founder/CEO at Panoptyc. “The copper stylus inspires customer confidence and gets people comfortable with using the kiosk. We’ve found that it will help increase sales with customers as well.”
Coffey said that Canteen, which primarily partners with 365 in this space, has enabled technology to minimize touching the kiosk. He noted that most micro market kiosk providers already have mobile apps that allow consumers to scan and pay for items without having to touch the kiosk.
“In the past, you’d have to hit a button to pay, but now that transaction automatically takes place as soon as the credit card is swiped,” he explained. “It’s the same if you have a loyalty card; as soon as you scan your loyalty card, it will deduct from your account.”
As McWhirter pointed out, COVID-19 may be pushing operators and micro market customers to fully embrace mobile payments, which save time and effort after the initial setup through a mobile app. The pandemic could also accelerate consumer acceptance of loyalty programs if operators promote them by highlighting the fast, efficient and safe checkout experience a loyalty program offers, in addition to exclusive member offers and savings. This could push customers past the initial hurdle of enrolling in a loyalty program, resulting in higher overall sales in the micro market.
Solutions for other high-touch areas
Door handles on coolers and coffee equipment are other high-contact areas in micro markets. Coffey advised that operators talk with their clients to find solutions for these areas of concern, noting that many clients are prepared to offer hand sanitizer so micro market customers can immediately disinfect their hands after touching a door handle.
“There are hardware solutions you can add to the doors — a J-hook, where you basically open and close a door with your forearm, so your hands don’t touch — and there are several manufacturers building foot pedals so you can use your foot to pull the door open and closed, or you press on a pedal to pop the door open or close it,” he said.
Coffey noted that while operators who offer prepackaged single-serve coffee options like K-cups should offer hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes in the coffee area, bean-to-cup machines offer truly touchless capabilities.
“If you’re using a bean-to-cup machine, we have some integrated solutions that will allow you to pay with your phone,” Coffey said. “There are some air touch solutions that allow you to hover over your selection, and then [the machine] knows you’re hovering and it makes the selection.”
McWhirter said that 365 is working with all major coffee original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to enable touchless coffee dispensing on bean-to-cup machines. This includes a solution that projects the coffee machine’s keypad into the 365Pay app, allowing the customer to customize a beverage from their phone.
“The prevailing way that these OEMs are making touchless happen is to reveal a QR code on the screen of the machine,” he explained. “You scan it with your smartphone, and it looks just like the coffee screen. You place your cup under the dispenser and that’s it. By putting it in the 365Pay app, the incremental advantage we’re offering is that you can use your balance to pay for your coffee at the same time.”
The post-COVID future
Ultimately, operators need to remind their customers that they’re providing food and beverage solutions that are convenient and safe for their employees, eliminating the need to leave the workplace.
“Micro markets are designed for social distancing,” Coffey said. “They’re set up closer to associates so they don’t travel as far to get the snacks and food items that they want, they’re designed for smaller populations of people, they’re open all the time so there’s no set break periods. So, by the nature of what they are, they’re designed for social distancing.”