By Kyle Field on Clean Technica 6 Sep 2017 – Royal Farms Rolls Out DC Fast Chargers At Its Gas Stations To Drive Retail Sales (CleanTechnica Exclusive)
Businesses have yet to find a balance when it comes to pricing schemes at public EV charging stations. It has been a challenge to keep the prices down to reasonable levels for the consumer, but still pay for the station installation in a reasonable amount of time. With new EV charging technology rolling out seemingly every other day, it is a constant race to implement relevant technology for drivers while not paying out the nose for bleeding-edge technology that may or may not be useful for drivers looking just 5 years out.
In an ironic twist, gas service stations are especially well suited for the challenge, as most are built with fuel being a loss leader that only serves to lure customers into the station (where they will inevitably purchase coffee, snacks, and more). These stations have been taken to the next level at many truck stops, which are designed from the ground up to provide every service you could imagine for long-haul truckers who are looking for fuel, a shower, a meal, and a place to park for the night.
Sitting between those two business models are EV charging stations, which are not places most people would park overnight (although, I do have to admit to sleeping for an hour or two at a few of the Supercharging stations on my Tesla Model S road trip), but still manage to capture the attention of drivers for the duration of charging. Royal Farms is well aware of this opportunity and has installed chargers at 22 of its locations out on the northeastern seaboard of the US.
I spoke with Royal Farms’ Fuel and Environmental Leader Tom Ruszin and Marketing Specialist/Project Manager Shelby Kemp about the partnership to understand the motivation for installing the chargers and what it could look like moving forward.
Royal Farms’ name isn’t just a marketing slogan to make it sound nicer than the average service station. Rather, it started out as a dairy farm back in 1918 and grew from there as it added its award-winning chicken and other restaurant-style food items. As with many fast-casual convenience stores on the east coast of the US, its stores are stacked deep with convenience items, fun frozen drinks, and snacks galore.
Building on its roots of stewardship of the land, Royal Farms has tried to live its company slogan — “real fresh, real fast, real green.” That is evident in its track record of vetting a variety of environmental and sustainability initiatives over the years. The company started by researching and deploying green building practices for its locations, then took the logical next step (as a gas station) to explore alternative fuels.
These were followed by migrating all station lighting to LEDs, and, obviously, the installation of EV chargers. Royal Farms currently has 22 locations with chargers in the field, with most offering Level 3 DC fast chargers through ChargePoint, one location offering Level 2 chargers, and another single location with a full blown Tesla Supercharger (in Graysonville, Maryland). That one opened 2 weeks ago. Though, it still shows as inactive on Tesla’s page.
Charged up on ChargePoint
After reviewing several options, Royal Farms selected ChargePoint as the primary vendor for its DC fast charging stations. Tom shared that the experience since installing the stations has been excellent. He highlighted that they are very accommodating and provided the systems at a very low cost to Royal Farms. It is important to note that many of the stations were installed in partnership with the local utility, so that has to be taken into context, as DC fast charging stations are not cheap, but with incentives, do represent lucrative incremental offerings in cases like Royal Farms.
ChargePoint’s software and the control it allowed Royal Farms to have over its network of chargers stood out over peers. Tom specifically mentioned the “great reporting at our fingertips” as a differentiator. As a data geek, I also feel comforted by the ability to see the money and metrics moving around at a granular level to truly understand what a charging station is or is not doing for each location. That data is all the more important in the first set of chargers, as it can help station owners to understand whether or not they are truly driving the incremental sales the installations were banking on.
Finally, owning the equipment was also an important factor for Royal Farms, and that is typically how ChargePoint operates, so was a great fit. The “buy once and replace over time” model for charging stations is very much in line with the purchasing/ownership models for petrol and diesel equipment, so the preference makes sense.
EV Charging at a Gas Station?
The obvious question that popped to mind when I heard that the operator of a large chain of gas stations was installing charging stations was, “Why?” Royal Farms Environmental Leader Tom Ruszin shared that the company sees the fast chargers as a great way to bring in customers that are much more likely to come into its convenience stores, which will drive incremental retail sales and higher profits. He shared that they do not view EV charging as a trend that will buck gasoline sales anytime in the near future, but that they wanted to get in early to establish their position in the EV charging ecosystem.
Pricing was originally set at a happy medium for the company, but they quickly heard back from drivers and ultimately lowered pricing to a flat rate of $0.29/kWh with a minimum charge of $3.50 per session. Customers are currently averaging 25 minutes per charging session, which is easily over the minimum payment per session. (Empathetic note: discussing payment schemes for EV charging stations makes for some awkward mental word juggling.)
As EVs with 200+ miles of range become more and more common, fast charging session times will also hop from around 30 minutes for a full charge to 60 minutes for a full charge. How customers will respond as they start showing up is anyone’s guess, but developing a menu with more items that cater to these owners seems very easy to imagine. Need your car washed in place in 45 minutes or less? Need some free wifi to sip on with your coffee? Comfortable chair? Shower? Sleeping pod? Maybe that’s a bit too far, but you get the idea.
Looking to the Future
Word is getting out about the chargers at Royal Farms and the customer response to date has been positive. Royal Farms Marketing Specialist/Project Manager Shelby Kemp noted that customers regularly tweet out their appreciation for the new EV chargers, which has created a customer-friendly, environmentally responsible perception of the brand.
Tom shared something that is perhaps even more impressive, stating that, “we end up getting more requests for EV charging than any of the other alternative fuels out there.” That’s a great sign from the field about how EV charging can be a valuable tool to draw in customers that have moved away from their primary reason for visiting a service station and keep them hooked into the retail end of the business.
With DC fast chargers for electric cars being such an obvious draw for EV drivers who will then be in the area for around 30 minutes, we will likely see more of this type of beneficial installation. It may in fact become the norm until someone comes up with a business model that makes EV charging in public a profitable proposition.
It is clear that Royal Farms truly is looking to be as green of a company as a fueling station can be and its efforts to support electric vehicle drivers is an extremely concrete, forward-looking move in that direction. Tom shared that Royal Farms is indeed looking to the future with the charging stations, noting that “we are excited to see growth in the industry and we are excited to be one of the companies building the infrastructure for EV drivers.”