Why EVs and AVs could be a ‘win’ for future retailers

It's just one glimpse of the sheer scale of disruption posed by new technology on society and commerce.
6 November 2019

Simply, charging cars means more customer dwell time. Source: Shutterstock

We are often told that rates of electric vehicle (EV) adoption and infrastructure are dragging, but early figures remain solid indicators that we’re at the foot of an incremental curve. 

In the UK, charging points now outnumber fuel stations by 15,000 to 9,000. Two million EVs were sold in 2018 globally. Developments in fast-charge technology, lowered costs, and government policy changes could help drive that figure up to 12 million by 2025, and 30 million by 2030. The market promises such growth, it’s attracting a sweep of new entrants. Electronics firms more synonymous with washing machines and hi-fis could soon be going head-to-head with age-old car brands. 

Rapid EV uptake is inevitable over the course of the next decade— and that will be a period in which we could well see the advent of autonomous vehicles on our roads, the vast majority of which will be electrically powered

All this speaks to us being at the beginning of a new age in urban, electric mobility— but that seachange won’t just impact transport. 

New fuel, new habits

Leaving the internal combustion engine in the rearview will do more than reduce our daily carbon footprint and save on gas money. Fuelling a vehicle with petrol or diesel takes minutes, if not seconds; while battery technology is advancing, charging an electric car can take at least half an hour.

As the population shifts to the EV, the process of recharging outside of the home will amount to hours of accrued dwell time. This will cause disruption (particularly for fuel companies and gas stations, of course) but savvy retailers could capitalize.

“The large global fuel retailers are all making significant investments to help manage the disruption caused by EVs,” Chris Griffiths, Managing Partner at REPL Group, told TechHQ.  

“We have moved beyond an era where refueling your vehicle necessarily forces the consumer to go to a fuel station as a destination, meaning you ‘must’ go to a forecourt to refuel your vehicle thus drive a physical interaction with the fuel retailer.

“Now you can now charge your vehicles at home, your workplace and other public locations.”

Retail game-changer

For Griffiths, the move to EVs will be a “complete game-changer” for retail. New commercial opportunities will arise; fuel (or charging) stations could launch value-adding subscription services and app-based loyalty schemes, while other retailers may look to build in charging infrastructure to attract customers.

Anticipating these opportunities, there are already brands and retailers demonstrating this potential.

BP’s mobile app BPme allows customers to unlock the fuel pump, pay and gain loyalty points for their custom, which can be used for discounts on fuel or other affiliated retailers’ products— similar programs could easily be activated for electric charge points.

Already, forwarding-thinking supermarkets such as Morrisons, Lidl, and Tesco are investing in EV infrastructure, putting themselves in line to be early adopters of charging station infrastructure having realized the potential of offering this service.

This will help cement these retailers as destinations for convenient EV charging, said Griffiths, allowing them to stand out from the competition in a growing segment of society— similarly, loyalty and incentive schemes will be baked in. 

A retailer’s app, for example, could take payment for charging automatically, while previous purchase activity could provide new possibilities for personalized targeting seconds before they set foot in-store.

“[…] grocery shopping is something all of us do, so being able to combine that with charging your car would be a bonus for people in today’s time-poor society,” Griffiths said. “It’s a ‘win-win’ for the customer and the retailer. The customer gets to be time-efficient and the retailer gets to increase the dwell time of a high-value consumer segment.”

Wider digitization

Members of the retail sector who are preparing for how personal mobility could change the way we go about our days must continue to be both proactive and reactive to the ways advanced technology continues to transform society, at various levels.

That includes the possible retail disruption from autonomous vehicles and the growth of shared mobility services, as well as technologies such as IoT and the “wider digitization” of the customer experience.

“Providing good digital frictionless experiences will become more and more important,” said Griffiths, as consumer experience expectations continue to be enhanced elsewhere.

Taking autonomous vehicles as an example, Griffiths said the wider uptake of the technology will lead to a “tectonic shift” for retailers “beyond the current paradigm of car ownership” towards subscription and value-add services.

“You can begin to envisage a world whereby a large fuel retailer would provide a full transport service model instead of direct sales to consumers. This will require new partnerships, such as with car brands, and new ways of attracting, retaining and growing relationships with customers.”

Smart city impact

The ways in which shifts in transportation technology could impact the world of physical retail is just one glimpse at the way emerging technologies— whether IoT, blockchain, quantum computing, robots, and autonomous technology— will have immense impacts on so many aspects of life and business that we take for granted.

The potential disruption of EVs on retail as just one, unique case, is a testament to the sheer scale of technologically-driven change approaching. In comparison, the architects of tomorrow’s smart cities must consider the societal and commercial impacts of new technologies one-hundred-fold. 

At the same time, while savvy, future-facing retailers can ensure success by pre-empting the influence of the changing tech landscape, Griffiths reminded that it’s important to remember these changes won’t take place overnight. 

Instead, changes should form part of a long-term, adaptable strategy; “There will be a long period of time whereby they co-exist with the current status quo,” he said. Ensuring they invest in the right technologies at the right time will be critical […].”