APIs and data democratization helped Casey’s General Store quickly launch new contactless customer services in response to COVID-19.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have dramatically accelerated their digital transformation plans. In this special episode of Dynamic Developer, I had a chance to speak with Art Sebastian, from Casey’s General Store, about how the company quickly rolled out curbside pickup and new third-party integrations in response to the coronavirus pandemic thanks to their API-first development strategy and data democratization.
Bill Detwiler: Art, before we talk about how you were able to roll out new services, like contactless delivery, give us a little background on Casey’s and your role at the company.
Art Sebastian: So I’m the Vice President of Digital Guest Experiences here at Casey’s General Stores. We’re a convenience retailer with 2,200 stores across 16 states. And what’s unique about our business is we do sell fuel and groceries like most C-stores, but we also have a pretty big prepared foods business, led by our famous made from scratch pizza.
Bill Detwiler: And so, when I was doing a little research for this piece, I actually saw that was the first thing that comes up. If you search for Casey’s General Store, is how to order pizza online.
Art Sebastian: Yeah. An interesting fact that a lot of people don’t know is that we’re the fifth largest seller of pizzas in the United States. And so we’ve got a pretty big business there and our pizza is made from scratch, fresh dough, fresh ingredients. And this past year, we really invested in our digital experiences to offer pizza for order online.
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Casey’s digital transformation started with its customers
Bill Detwiler: So let’s talk about that. A lot of companies had digital transformation efforts in place before the current COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lock downs accelerated those efforts. What was happening at Casey’s General Store before the pandemic, in terms of digital transformation? And then what did you have to do as a result of the pandemic in order to keep customers… To still give customers those experiences that they had had before?
Art Sebastian: We’ve been on our digital transformation journey for the last two years. And we’ve gotten quite a bit done in the last two years. Standing up a full new technology stack, building out new digital experiences and engaging our guests in a different way. All of it in the spirit of modernizing and becoming more contemporary for our guests. And ultimately, that we feel will make us relevant for years to come. And so this unexpected pandemic hit us earlier this year, as it hit the rest of the world and every retail business. And I’ll tell you what, looking back at it just a few months back, we’re very fortunate to have been along our digital transformation journey. Because what happened as the pandemic hit is we were forced to move even faster in terms of the planned work. And there were certain initiatives that we did not plan to take up this year that we had to bring forward.
And so I’ll give you an example of that. No contact delivery was not in our plan, but given the pandemic and the whole need to offer safer solutions and experiences for our guests, we had to bring that work forward. Another initiative that was not currently in our plan was curbside pickup. And so that was in the out years. And so given all the change and really consumer needs and expectations, we had to pull that initiative forward. And then the other thing I’d tell you is there were initiatives slated for later in the year that we had to accelerate. So things like third-party delivery through partnership with other companies, was in our plan, but we accelerated that given the pandemic.
Bill Detwiler: And what was it about your technology stack maybe that helped you be able to move those initiatives up? Because it’s not necessarily sometimes an easy thing to roll out a new service that requires a technology back end. A lot of work from engineering, from developers, from admins, from architects, to stand these services up. In the best of circumstances that can take months. But in a business like yours, a retail operation that I assume, because you sell food and fuel was deemed an essential service. So you had to stand these things up really quickly.
Art Sebastian: Yeah, that’s right. And to your point, even in the best of circumstances, everything we got done in the last couple of months would have been a challenge regardless. But what I would tell you is that we found ourselves well positioned to move at lightning speed. That all said, I wouldn’t call it easy. There was still a lot of work to get done. Everything from the right UI and UX, and then the integration work. But we found ourselves in a really good spot because here at Casey’s, we do lead with an API strategy. And so what that means is we’re able to democratize data to multiple systems. And it allows us to move much faster than if we were in a point-to-point world. And so as we stood up new experiences, like no contact delivery, like curbside, like beer online, we were able to leverage those services and move at lightning speed.
Bill Detwiler: What is it about having sort of that API first development model that allows you to move that quickly? You talked about democratizing data. Are there other components of how you build apps, how you deploy apps, how your internal engineers, your work, that made that possible?
Art Sebastian: Yeah. Obviously, democratizing data to multiple applications is the key piece of it. Allowing us to also have consistent data set across multiple systems. In the past I’ve shared an example of simple things like our store data. Hours of operation, what services each store has, and being able to democratize that across multiple systems, whether it be a third-party delivery partner, our own website, our own mobile app. I think many times we take that information for granted, but at the time of the pandemic, it was critical for our guests to know what time we were open. Because the hours were changing by the day, by the week. So I think being able to push the data out in a consistent manner. The other piece is the speed. And I go back to things like the re-usability of our APIs, enabling us to move with speed. And that sort of really helped us over the last few months.
API-first strategy helped Casey’s quickly respond to customers
Bill Detwiler: You brought up something that I think is important to kind of maybe expand on a little bit, which is your customers. So talk about how… Because we can talk about all the work that takes place behind the scenes. But all of that work is really to provide the customers with, like you said, the ability to see when stores are open, to be able to make purchases in a contactless way. So to help maintain their health and safety and operate in this kind of new normal. Talk about how that translated, some of those initiatives translated directly to the customer experiences that you were able to take from what maybe was once in-person to a digital experience?
Art Sebastian: Yeah. So we saw a lot change in a very short period of time. So things emerged as newly important or even more important than ever. So things like having contactless delivery, no contact delivery emerged as something that was really, really important. And with the need for safety, the need for cleanliness, and really limiting unnecessary human interaction, the notion of providing no contact delivery emerged as an experience that we just needed to have. And so we built that out for delivery and for pickup. And quite frankly, our guests responded well and leveraged that service. We also saw the need for curbside pickup. And so there’s a set of guests out there that want to take advantage of ordering online, and they want to take advantage of the assortment we make available, but they don’t necessarily want to come into the store.
And so they’ll place that order. They’ll drive up to our store and let us know that they’re here. And we’ll bring that order and put it directly into their trunk. So it’s just another level of convenience. The other thing that we saw really emerge is this whole need for delivery. And so we’re obviously in the pizza business. And so pizza and delivery go hand-in-hand, but partnering with DoorDash gave us the ability to create even more access to our pizza and delivery. And so we’ve sort of stood up what we considered an early pilot with DoorDash that was in 35 stores back in February. As the pandemic hit us all in March, we quickly expanded that to 600 stores. And so we’ve been running that business since the March-April timeframe. And the latest upgrade we’ve made is we’ve done the work to integrate with DoorDash. So the data, the information, it flows seamlessly. Everything from our menu, to the orders, to the fulfillment, all flows seamlessly. And so we’re in the process now of rolling out that integration as we speak.
Bill Detwiler: And how were you able to do that? What were the back end systems that you were using? You talked about APIs, to allow you to roll that out, so the data moves seamlessly like that?
Art Sebastian: Yeah. So we relied heavily on our MuleSoft partnership, quite frankly. So having the right APIs to connect Casey’s and DoorDash. To move the information back and forth. And we’ve partnered heavily with DoorDash’s integration team and point of sale team to do that work. And really that’s what helped us make this possible. And the good news, quite frankly, is that now that the integration work is done and we’ll begin to roll it out, it opens up the door to more potential. Either more services and different experiences with DoorDash that we’ve already built the integration with. And in some cases it will enable us to open up new partnerships with other third-party delivery partners.
Digital transformation lessons learned from COVID-19
Bill Detwiler: So I think that’s a great point to build on. What are you looking forward to in the future? How are you looking to take the lessons that you’ve learned in the last four months and translate those into kind of your ongoing digital transformation?
Art Sebastian: Yeah. Boy, there’s so many things that run through my mind as you ask that question. So obviously we’re very excited about the third-party delivery partner capability that we’ve built. And we’ll continue to run that business and grow it over time. Like I said, we’re piloting curbside and we’re going to expand that in the coming months. And so we’ll continue to build that program out. We’ve just recently launched a pilot of beer online. And so that’s a new assortment that we’ve added online that comes with its own complexities, because it’s age restricted, it requires ID verification. And so you talk about more information flowing through our systems. And so I see us taking that from a pilot and scaling that over the course of the coming months. But what’s really interesting is to make all of this happen, to bring all this to life.
There’s also some store team member enablement that we need to consider. And so building a fulfillment application that allows our store team members to fulfill, pick and fulfill these orders is something that’s on our radar. And then as we think about that fulfillment application, we want to take it a step further and think through substitutions in the case that we’re out of stock. And two way conversations between our stores and our guests, if we need to navigate a substitution.
The other thing that we’re thinking about is how do we optimize our kitchens and our stores? And so things like order queue management, and really kind of think about a store labor planner. And so when I describe these things, Bill, I mean, this is a large amount of data flowing through our systems. And everything’s got to be seamless and the data’s got to be consistent. And so what I’m describing is a lot of work to do to continue to build out our customer facing initiatives. But also now making sure that we take care of the backend so that our stores are in a good position to meet those needs.
Bill Detwiler: And do you think that would have been possible without accomplishing all this, would it be possible without the infrastructure, the cloud-based sort of infrastructure that you had before the pandemic and that you’ve been using?
Art Sebastian: My answer to that is anything is possible. I truly believe that. With time and money. And so the key here with what we’ve done at Casey’s is we’ve invested in the right enterprise grade platform, the MuleSoft Anypoint Platform, we’ve invested and leaned in on this API-first strategy. And that has enabled us to move much faster. And so now we can keep pace with our customer’s needs, which happened to be changing quite frequently. And I think we’re putting ourselves in a position to sort of get in front of it a little bit, which is just the spot we want to be in.
Be thoughtful about your technology partners and overall architecture
Bill Detwiler: What advice would you give to companies who are going through the same thing you are right now? Hopefully they were able to adapt as quickly as you were, but you don’t know. And so if they’re in the midst of a digital transformation, either accelerated or brought on by the current pandemic, what advice would you give?
Art Sebastian: I think first and foremost, always listening to your customer. So pay attention to your customer, their wants, their needs, their requirements. Fast forward a little bit and think about what you anticipate them needing in the future, given everything changing. And so I think listening to your customer is the most important thing you can do. And then when you bring that information back inside, laying out a good plan and being realistic with what you can build and how quickly you can build it is critical. And for us, I think one of the most important pieces is securing the right partnerships and the right technology stack to do what we want to get done. So if I were to give someone advice, I’d say, be very thoughtful about your technology partners and your overall architecture, because that will impact the work you do moving forward.
Bill Detwiler: So Art, how were you able to stay in contact with customers as their worlds were changing during this current work-from-anywhere or locked down environment that we find ourselves in?
Art Sebastian: Yeah, engaging our guests is a key piece of our marketing strategy. And we spend a lot of time investing in our, what I’d call our subscriber base. So these are our guests who subscribed to our marketing and advertising. And here at Casey’s, we leveraged Salesforce Marketing Cloud for a variety of things. First, that’s where we store all of our customer data. It’s sort of that single truth of data for us, but it’s also where we set up our customer journeys. And so we can set those journeys up to make sure that we’re engaging customers at the right time, whether it’s talking to a frequent pizza purchaser or someone who may have lapsed over their course of 28 days, or if it’s just to share information around a new process and procedures we’re doing in our stores. And so we leveraged Salesforce Marketing Cloud for that.
We also set up all of our automation tools in terms of sending emails, sending SMSs and sending app push. And most recently we’ve started to leverage Salesforce Einstein to optimize all of the various touch points. And so what’s important to us is making sure that we engage with our customers, but we do it in a very relevant manner. And that’s an ongoing process we continue to optimize.