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Startup wants to bring China's gas stations into the 21st century

Company's system automates operations and finds value in customer data

Barriers to entry in the gas station business are high, which has made marketing seem less urgent. Smartyoke hopes to change that attitude. (Photo courtesy of the company)

BEIJING -- Smartyoke, a startup that specializes in the automation and operation of gas stations, has big plans.

The privately owned company was established in 2016 and offers a system that integrates services such as tracking the amount of gasoline sold, smart payments and prepaid cards, membership management and management of annex facilities.

Its system is already in use at more than 5,000 gas stations and the company will launch a Series B funding round later this year to gain more customers. Smartyoke hopes to partner with 20,000 gas stations within four years, which would net it 20% of the domestic market.

The number of gas stations is growing in China as cars become more widespread. There were nearly 100,000 gas stations in the country in 2018, according to data from the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, a government-affiliated think tank, and market research company AskCI Consulting. Of these, more than half are run by state-owned China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., also known as Sinopec, or PetroChina.

Gas stations take up a lot of space and the industry has high barriers to entry. Day-to-day operations demand a significant amount of energy, so there is little time to improve management. Various businesses in the sector have remained unintegrated for decades.

At most gas stations, for example, sales data is stored only on fuel pumps. Employees check the amount of gasoline remaining with a level gauge. But the gas cards that customers use for payments is provided by an external software company. This jumble of data makes managing efficiently difficult and hampers marketing. Inefficient internal management and outdated marketing methods are long-standing problems in the industry.

Smartyoke's system integrates equipment such as the level gauges and gasoline meters, and improves operation through a software-as-a-service format. The company aims to help gas stations grow by providing better marketing plans and smart payment services, handling management of customer loyalty programs and sales, and providing year-round support.

In addition to simplifying management by introducing a data visualization system, and linking gauges and other equipment made by various manufacturers, Smartyoke's system lowers costs and highlights the value of transaction and customer data.

Conventional gas stations fail to capture large amounts of information, resulting in lost value. That makes it difficult to attract new customers and to keep existing ones loyal through marketing. Smartyoke develops marketing strategies tailored to individual customers. The system develops profiles for each customer based on detailed data, such as how often they use the gas station and how much they spend, according to Yi Wang, Smartyoke's founder. That enables gas stations to offer discounts and promotions appropriate to each customer.

"We make judgments based on data, including what time of the month each customer comes to fill up their car, what type of gas they buy and what kind and how many drinks they buy afterward," he said. "We have a team for gas station marketing that is in charge of product updates and upgrades throughout the year."

In addition to managing operations at state-run gas stations under both central and local jurisdictions, the company envisions partnering with logistics companies to introduce a smart system for delivery vehicles, connecting gas stations with the logistics sector.

Smartyoke's gross merchandise volume has already reached 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion). This year's sales are expected to hit 80 million yuan and its net profit margin is forecast at about 13%. The company is focused not only on growing the market, but also on helping gas stations get more value out of existing customers. It is currently looking for ways to diversify gas stations' business and increase their share of nonpetroleum business.

36Kr, a Chinese tech news portal founded in Beijing in 2010, has more than 150 million readers worldwide. Nikkei announced a partnership with 36Kr on May 22, 2019.

For the Japanese version of this story, click here.

For the Chinese version, click here.

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