By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
When NewsBreak Media Networks was founded in 2009, “the business was cast as a local advertising platform that took advantage of convenience store customers’ dwell time,” Chief Executive Officer Bob Bradley explained in this early 2015 teknovation.biz article.
A lot has changed in the nearly 13 years since NewsBreak was launched, and those changes caused the Knoxville-based company to rebrand last October as Shep Digital Solutions. The new name better represents the company’s full range of customizable digital merchandising services for convenience stores and other retail businesses.
“There were two factors at play,” Shep President Brian Nelson told us recently. “Our products and services were expanding as we integrated into more point of sale systems to support our clients. That significantly increased the number of customer-facing screens our systems were managing. Secondly, when people thought of us, they mostly thought about the linear programming on a gas pump, and that was a problem.”
With software becoming so much of a driver for the company’s growth, Nelson said that he and Bradley decided to rebrand by using the working title of the proprietary software that the company had been using internally for years. That name was Shep, and concurrent with the new name, the company also launched a new website that highlights its core services like marketing automation and content procurement and production.
“Software is the driver for the business today,” Nelson (pictured right) said. “We’ve gotten out of the hardware business.”
The entire consumer experience is driven by Shep’s proprietary data analytics platform, which uses information like historical sales and loyalty program data, weather, time of day, neighborhood demographics, and more to increase conversion rates. The experience is designed to draw the customer who is pumping gas into the ever-evolving modern convenience store. And once customers are inside, they encounter digital menus, order kiosks, self-check-out systems, and more that can all be driven by the Shep platform.
The company still curates content locally and features local news, weather, and lifestyle content, making it more engaging and relevant to customers, but this is now one of many products in the company’s portfolio, instead of the primary focus.
“Retailers (the convenience store operators) are trying to get customers to see them as a destination for food, proprietary products, and other services beyond fuel,” Nelson explains. “We have become experts at this approach. We are a comprehensive digital shopper marketing company that fully understands the customer journey and can manage all digital touch points in a store.”
More specifically, Shep’s customizable platform enhances the consumer experience while maximizing profitability per customer. Among the ever-growing set of evolutions in technology at convenience stores and across all retail are options such as interactive touch screens, product ordering at the pump, the proliferation of self-check-out, and curated customer loyalty programs that further enhance the retail experience.
The company’s new name and portfolio of products also embodies a philosophy that Bradley and Nelson adopted years ago: the Wayne Gretzky philosophy of focusing on where the puck is going, not where it is.
“There continues to be a sea change in the marketplace today,” Nelson says, adding, “For example, there’s a ton of consolidation in the convenience store business.” Knoxvillians have seen that firsthand as the Haslam family late last year sold 40 convenience stores, mostly located in the Knoxville area and separate from the Pilot/Flying J Travel Centers, to Casey’s General Stores in an all-cash deal for $220 million.
“Casey’s is an example of a convenience store becoming a destination, and more than a stop along the way,” Nelson says. “It is a pizza restaurant as much as it is a convenience store, and it’s one of the largest pizza chains in the country. Our client United Dairy Farmers is also a great example of a convenience store destination, as one of the most beloved ice cream shops throughout Ohio. In fact, they are so good you can find their ‘Homemade Ice Cream’ brand at the Fresh Market right here in Knoxville.”
In terms of growth, Nelson says it has been “fairly steady trajectory until mid-2020 when it really started to accelerate. It doubled in 2021 compared to the previous year and will likely triple in 2022.