Eric Jones is watching me check out via the handheld register that our waitress at Hitch handed me on Wednesday afternoon. I insert my card, pay, tip, and thank the waitress. The whole process from start to finish took less than a minute.
“Do you see how painless that was?” he asks. “How easy that process was?”
Ease and consistency have been a theme for our lunch discussion. Jones is the Chief Innovation Officer for Parker’s, but he didn’t land in the role because of his passion for convenience stores. He openly admits he didn’t really pay too much attention to convenience store operations and offerings before working at Parker’s. But he vividly recalls the first time he stepped inside a Parker’s gas station.
“I’d only been to Savannah once, and it was at our Fancy Parker’s in Savannah’s downtown,” he said. “First time I had ever walked into a Parker’s. Coming from Atlanta, I hadn’t experienced a convenience store like that.
Jones is a CPA by trade with a background in business intelligence. One of his many claims to fame is the development of a product known as narrative language generation. This tool analyzes data across systems and then generates summaries in a narrative format. He states that these reports could be understood “from the boardroom to the code room.”
This profession led him into the world of deep data, using analytics to identify complex problems and identify solutions. A friendship with current Parker’s CFO Brian Prevatt led to an introduction to Greg Parker, which ultimately led Jones to accept a position with Parker’s and move to Savannah. He began his role by working to understand the background of Parker’s and the decisions made by both consumers and employees that fuel their business.
“We started with deep data analytics, deriving insights…doing things like detecting anomalies, finding when something is going wrong that shouldn’t be going wrong,” he said.
Parker’s operates 70 stores in the Coastal Georgia and Lowcountry regions. Convenience stores and kitchens decorated with the well-known blue logo dot the roads between Midway and Charleston. So many stores, so many employees, so many customers, and for Jones, so many opportunities to analyze data. I asked him to condense his findings over the past four years of research. What had he found that influenced changes at Parker’s?
“The demands of the consumer are sky-high,” he said. “The expectation that they have of us is comparing us to the best experience that they have anywhere.”
Jones and his team have used their deep repository of data to produce the best experience they can for their customers. One of his crowning achievements was implementing and streamlining the Smart Kitchen across Parker’s locations.
“[The Smart Kitchen] uses predictive analytics to determine that you’re going to come in at 3 a.m., and determine what we think you’re going to buy at 3 a.m., and then it schedules out all of the production systems that need to be in place to deliver you the food exactly at the right time, right quality, when you want it.”
Jones says that the Smart Kitchen works to empower the front-line employee to provide exceptional customer service. This ensures that a customer gets the same great experience across all Parker’s locations. He speaks on the role that machines play in the service industry and the fears that come with enhanced features that can potentially replace workers.
“I don’t believe that technology will ever replace human connection,” Jones said. “So we want our employees to spend more time on creating that human connection with our customers. The more time that they’re spending on things that don’t create the human connection, the less successful we will be.”
That success is of paramount importance for Parker’s. The company has a phenomenal growth rate, averaging 20 percent increases year after year.
“The great thing about Parker’s is that we are highly entrepreneurial,” Jones boasts. “I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t feel that I had the freedom and latitude to be an entrepreneur in a 45-year-old company. We really do operate like a startup. We fail fast, and we’re always being challenged to come up with new things.”
Failure is a familiar friend to Jones, one that he knows all too well. I ask him to recount at least one specific instance of a time where things didn’t go as planned for him.
“We’ve failed a lot,” he says, laughing. ”I truly do embrace failure, but it doesn’t make it any easier when we do fail. We tried to do too much at once. We had all these aspirations and all these demands, and what you really have to understand with technology is how your consumer is going to use it, how they’re going to engage with it, understand it.”
He pauses, taking a sip of water. “So I think a lot of the failure that comes is in the assumption that you make around how your product will be used by whoever the customer is and projecting your experiences on that. The failure is not testing enough, not using a data-driven analytics approach every step of the way to test. We’ve failed numerous times.”
Jones continues to focus on his roles at the business, which include far more than data analytics; he also oversees business intelligence and data science. But he stays laser-focused on bringing each and every customer the same joy he found on his first trip to Parker’s, such as the free-flowing, never-ending trove of chewy ice.
“I’m a huge ice chewer,” he says with a grin. Finding the chewy ice was a major score for him. It was just one of many things that opened a door for him as he took on a new part of his life, leading to a profound realization.
“That first experience showed me ‘Oh wow, Parker’s is doing something different here,” he says. “We’re looking to change the perception and experience of what a convenience store can be.”
To learn more about Parker’s and Parker’s Kitchens, visit https://parkerskitchen.com/