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AI- Augmented CSTORES

Originally Published in Cognitive Times Vol. 7 No. 3

Read on Cognitive Times Website:

Sridhar Sudarsan, the Chief Technology Officer at SparkCognition, speaks about Visual AI Advisor and how it can revolutionize the CStore retail business.

The basis of all revolution is now firmly rooted in technological advancements. Artificial intelligence is at the forefront of this new digital transformation. AI solutions offer fast, measurable insights that promise to provide action rather than endless data. This is especially true for retailers looking to enhance their operations and profitable growth.

While 2022 was stormy and uncertain for so many businesses, 2023 is predicted to be a year of transformation, especially for the fuel and retail sectors. With the shopper being the center of all retail, it is time to regain consumer trust by delivering efficient services, innovative product solutions, and convenience.

AI for CStores is the perfect solution.

The convenience store or CStore market size is now predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.6% from 2022 to 2028. In 2022, there were over 148,000 CStores in the United States alone, of which 16,018 were in Texas. That’s a long way from the first 7-Eleven that opened in Dallas in 1927.

Facts are everything. So here are some interesting numbers and facts to put things into perspective and shed some light onto why we are talking about harnessing the power of the CStore.
• 39% of all Cstore sales are in-store sales; the rest is fuel
• 20% of consumers claim they are shopping at CStores more after the pandemic
• 4 pm to 7 pm is the most popular time of day
• The loyalty program is the primary influencer for choosing the CStore
• Product pricing is the main factor in a positive customer experience

When we look at those stats and data, we have a clear idea of where to position the CStore strategy in the coming years. This idea was the crux of the podcast conducted by John Lofstock, the Executive Director of the National Advisory Group for Convenience Stores (NAG), and Sridhar Sudarsan, the Chief Technology Officer at SparkCognition. Their discussion set the tone for the NAG Conference in 2023, where the ability of AI to augment CStores was at the forefront.

Sridhar explained AI is not so much ‘Artificial Intelligence’ but ‘Augmented Intelligence’ meant to supplement and support both consumers and the business. He described it as a tool to bolster the services, products, and personnel of the CStore to increase profitability and productivity. Sridhar used real-world examples of documented shopper behavior to reinforce that customer experience is the key to harnessing the potential of the CStore and visual AI is the driving force.

The podcast and conference emphasized that harnessing the data and creating action is more important than collecting more data. Utilizing data effectively, we can funnel infinite matrices collected from global trends, national sales, location data, and even weather data to create real-time actions and preempt changes. Perhaps an action as easy as leaving out umbrellas when it’s about to rain could improve customer experience.

Simple image analysis can lead to creating heat maps of foot traffic, tracking the behavior of consumers to detect their personas, creating and implementing loyalty programs, and tracking priorities and points of concern. These may have originated from the need for better security and safety but now encompass more essential aspects of augmented AI assistance that extend to marketing, sales, labor division, and value-added services.

Turning fuel customers into CStore customers was the priority, Sridhar said. He especially emphasized focusing on the electronic vehicle customer as they spend a reasonably long time at the charging station and in the vicinity of the CStore. According to Facts and Factors Market Research Company and the US Department of Transportation, the global EV charging station market is worth $18.22 billion. It takes an average of 1 hour and 17 minutes for an EV to fully charge at a public charging station. That’s an hour and seventeen minutes of opportunity for the CStore.

Depending on the needs of the EV charging customer, if a system is in place to attach a buyer persona, the accompanying CStore can apply a strategy upon their arrival. The business can implement marketing plans, special offers, or promotions to boost sales. Something as simple as greeting the customer to let them know their patronage is crucial will add a personal touch and give them a chance to enter the store.

Many EV charging companies like Tesla, Electrify America, and others are considering adding leisure activities at their charging stations. A twenty to thirty-minute downtime to charge their vehicle might not seem as daunting to customers if they can finish their last-minute shopping. Perhaps they might buy and enjoy a beverage if a picnic table is available with free Wi-Fi. Or if a lounge is open with a TV and air conditioning, especially on a hot day, they could also purchase a snack or meal. It’s easier to digest offers when customers are not pressed for time.

“This is where it’s a beautiful sort of collaboration,” Sridhar said. It is especially exciting for retailers when these AI-augmented solutions use their existing on-site equipment. SparkCognition’s Visual AI Adviser can take the inundating data that retailers are bombarded with daily and create actionable solutions in their existing technology network. Sridhar explained that, with their experience with forecourts, SparkCognition is the perfect partner to help scale the CStore business and add the value of actions to their operations.
While the discussion revolved around additional value that can be gained from AI for CStores, Sridhar said that this didn’t mean that safety and security took a backseat. That’s where the story started. “So that’s where it started, but then very quickly it started coming into the store, and now we have the full CStore experience.”

When asked about augmented intelligence’s most significant opportunities, Sridhar outlined three fundamental takeaways.

He said Visual AI Advisor is a hardened technology that is tried and tested extensively. “Our solution is deployed in over 120,000 cameras in about 16 countries. Many of them are for retail, so we understand the business.” Because the solution is built into the existing system, value addition begins in a matter of days. It’s fast, it’s here, and it’s working.

The second most significant opportunity Visual AI Advisor for CStore creates is providing effective labor management and staff redeployment. “AI technology, especially computer vision, augmenting your employees becomes a very powerful combination. So you can manage 100% of the store operations with only 70% of labor.” Staff is available where they are most needed, and that helps maximize productivity with minimized cost; that’s a solution anyone would buy into.

The third and last value addition created with Visual AI Advisor for CStores comes from focusing on creating actions rather than data. It is automating simple processes that remove margins for error, for unpredictability, and cater to lapses in security and judgment. It’s easier to respond to an alert than to scan through endless data and find what’s wrong.

AI-augmented CStore applications provide a way to predict the coming change and create a strategy for when the change occurs. Whether related to spending, politics, inflation, security, or safety, all retailers can benefit from AI’s ability to help create optimized and sustainable actions.

Focus on the action, he said again. “It’ll give you the quickest time to iterate and to be prepared for the change that is constantly coming.”

AI-Augmented CStores are the future. From monitoring merchandise to forecasting sales, stock optimization to labor management, customer-profiling to customer satisfaction, AI is a positive driving force for increased efficiency and sustainable profit.

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