A 7-Eleven may bring to mind thoughts of coffee, gas, and slurpees. But the convenience store chain is making some serious moves to digitally transform into a store of the future, exploring e-commerce, augmented reality (AR), and artificial intelligence (AI) to meet the changing needs of customers.

7-Eleven has a surprisingly strong history of innovation: It was the first store to stay open 24/7, the and the first to introduce to-go coffee cups and self-serving soda fountains. About a year ago, the chain hired Gurmeet Singh as CIO and CDO, tasked with leading a full-stack digital transformation of the brand.

“When you fast-forward, you’re now looking to redefine convenience by building the experiences of the future, powered by digital,” Singh said. “Our job is to make sure that every interaction that our customers have with us inside or outside the store is very valuable and delightful.”

SEE: IT leader’s guide to achieving digital transformation (Tech Pro Research)

Singh is no newcomer: 7-Eleven represents his fourth digital transformation project at a large corporation, following work at CapitalOne, Intuit, and FedEx.

7-Eleven has 63,000 locations worldwide. About 55 million customers shop at the store each day, and nearly 20 billion transactions are processed on a daily basis.

The digital efforts underway are taking many forms: One project includes expanding the 7Rewards app-based customer loyalty program, which now allows its 9 million members to earn points and rewards for every purchase in the store. The company also launched the 7-Eleven Bot on Facebook Messenger for better customer service and brand engagement.

SEE: How Sephora is leveraging AR and AI to transform retail and help customers buy cosmetics (free PDF) (TechRepublic cover story)

The company is also exploring delivery and order-ahead features, Singh said. “We’re the only player who can probably deliver and pizza and a Pepto Bismol at the same time,” he added. The delivery service–called 7NOW–is currently being tested in 10 Dallas stores, with plans to expand to other US locations this year.

Customers can download an app for iOS or Android, and order food, cosmetics, gift cards, home goods, and other products from the store, to receive either directly at their home or office, or to be picked up in the store.

7-Eleven is also experimenting with using AR, AI, and machine learning to enhance customer personalization and the experience in the store. Plans for all of those technologies are still under wraps, however, Singh said.

SEE: Virtual and augmented reality policy (Tech Pro Research)

Singh said approaches technology as a means to solve customer problems. “The biggest aspect is having deep empathy with our customers, and doing a lot of observation of customer journeys to understand the friction points and really see things that the customers may not even ask you for,” Singh said.

As customers are increasingly expecting 24/7 connectivity and service, “we need to be in their ecosystem,” Singh said. The company launched e-commerce on Amazon on a limited basis, expanding the availability of Amazon Lockers for in-store package pickup and adding Amazon Cash to more than 8,000 locations.

Digital transformation advice

Many retailers fail in digital transformation because they don’t think outside of the physical store, Singh said. “We’re solving for the experiences of the future for the consumer, and we believe the store will play an important role, but it’s not the whole equation,” he added.

The customer and their experience must come first, over physical location, Singh said.

“Retailers that think like software companies are going to do really well, because we already have an established base of customers,” Singh said. “It’s adaptability and continued innovation that’s going to take them forward.”

At its core, digital transformation is a business transformation, enabled by digital tools, Singh said. “That’s a very important thing to keep in mind, because if leaders just think about this as digital transformation, they’re not really changing the core DNA,” he added.

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