Back Office & Forecourt Evolution

From state-of-the-art back-office software programs to innovative forecourt marketing and ordering systems, the convenience channel’s bottom line is benefiting from the latest technology.

By Lisa White, Contributing Editor

It would be difficult to dispute the many groundbreaking developments in forecourt marketing and back-office technology.

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From beacon programs to ordering apps and scanning software that provides inventory management, merchandising and marketing capabilities, c-stores benefit from added efficiencies and revenue-generating opportunities.

Joining a growing number of convenience retailers, Salt Lake City-based Maverik, which operates nearly 200 stores, prompts customers to order food ahead on proprietary apps. Other chains are relying on tried-and-true pumptoppers, signage and videos to drive traffic into the store.

With the evolution of these programs and others, it’s important to keep up to date on technological advancements to drive business from the pump to the store.

The latest innovations in back-office software provide the necessary checks and balances that ensure profitable products are on the shelves.

Team Oil Travel Center, a single-store operator in Spring Valley, Wis., utilizes Waukesha, Wis.-based The Scan Group Inc.’s back-office software to scan all its products in and out of the store.

“For instance, our grocery supplier provides electronic invoices that are inputted into our back-office software,” said Eric Huppert, Team Oil’s president. “If the vendor doesn’t inform us when prices change, our software will.”

The software program also allows the retailer to print its own shelf tags. This allows for immediate price changes when margins fluctuate.

Scan Group also provides Team Oil with the ability to offer two-for-one or three-for-one price deals and other promotions.

“The software has tracked all of our sales from the day it was installed six years ago,” said Huppert.

This has been advantageous in a number of instances. For example, an energy drink provider recently visited the store in an effort to convince Huppert to expand space for its brand. Although the sales rep contended that the beverage was the No. 1 seller across the nation, Huppert was able to print out data to the contrary.

“The software data revealed that this energy drink provider’s product line sold 9,500 units in the last 12 months, while a competing brand sold 12,000 units during the same time period,” said Huppert.

As a result, the decision was made to move coolers around, adding a second door of the more popular energy drink.

Another benefit of this sales information is the ability for retailers to make quick decisions, which is beneficial to the retailer’s bottom line.

“This software, which cost $8,000 to install, paid for itself the first year just in keeping up with margins,” said Huppert.

In addition to sales tracking, much of the recent innovations in back-office technology have been focused on labor, due to more staff needed to run growing c-store foodservice programs.

“Recently, I’ve been seeing more attention being paid to workforce management solutions,” said Ed Collupy, an executive consultant at the W. Capra Consulting Group, based in Chicago. “There are a number of retailers making investments not only on the labor management side in terms of scheduling, but also in controlling labor costs.”

Companies like Hamilton, N.J.-based PDI Inc.; JDA in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Kronos in Chelmsford, Mass.; and flexis with U.S. headquarters in Westerville, Ohio are offering scheduling solutions to help ensure stores are properly staffed without incurring overtime.

Double Quick, Inc., a 60-store operation based in Indianola, Miss., is focusing on controlling labor with back-office systems.

“We’re working on an internal project to help us with scheduling and reducing our labor while enhancing customer service,” said Howard Hyche, Double Quick’s vice president of information technology. “We want to schedule around peak times, peak sales and peak events. We also seek a program to analyze our labor data, which will ensure we have the right number of people when we need them and not have extra people when we don’t.”

When it comes to new developments in forecourt marketing, much of the focus has been on incorporating technology, such as media and ordering capabilities, at the pump to help drive business into the store.

“One of the things that’s happening throughout the industry is retailers are looking at the investment they have to make at the forecourt in order to support chip credit cards,” said Collupy.

“That’s causing a lot of c-store retailers to pause and ask what else can be done as this investment is being made to bring added value to the customer experience.”

Some solutions are from traditional pump vendors that have been out for a while and have a model behind them, while others are from new players with different strategies that provide stores with more flexibility and independence.

“What’s beginning to happen is emerging competition with pump media solutions; one is ingrained in the marketplace and the other is ingrained in the architecture, systems and applications for the forecourt,” said Collupy.

The bottom line is retailers want to not only be in control of the marketing and messages, but also be able to sell items at the dispenser and enroll people in loyalty programs or membership clubs.

This has led to an expansion of technology and capabilities at the pump.

“Much of this is driven by the explosion of foodservice in c-stores,” said Collupy. “Customers can now order an item at the dispenser so it’s ready to be picked up in the store.”

Pump sales capabilities also have been expanded with other innovative technology, such as Long Beach, Calif.-based Linq3 Technology’s point of sale lottery program. Its Play at the Pump program gives c-store retailers the ability to offer lottery purchases at the gas pump as customers re-fuel.

“Although this approach has been executed state by state due to lottery management, the technology has begun to make inroads in bigger states like California and New York,” said Collupy. “This is further evidence of the potential at the forecourt, with point of sale integration and the expansion of capabilities.”

Hyche at Double Quick admits the chain is a bit behind in implementing forecourt technology. The company is currently looking into incorporating mobile programs and apps into its repertoire.

“We see mobile and loyalty blending together,” said Hyche. “In the past, we have avoided loyalty programs because we weren’t sure these were a fit. However, if a retailer has the capability to do something with mobile technology at the forecourt with the customer on the premises, this provides the ability to market directly with geo fencing.”

This is Double Quick’s plan moving forward in an attempt to personalize its marketing messages via smartphones.

“So many of the mobile apps today are about mobile payments,” said Hyche. “I understand this is a big part of retail, but that’s not driving us. With stores in the Mississippi Delta, we still have a lot of cash and tender customers.”

Double Quick would like to offer mobile capabilities both inside and outside the store. This would include an app that helps sell product, not one that just targets customers.

“What’s going to happen has yet to be determined,” said Hyche. “We’re taking a wait and see approach until the technology gets to where it needs to be.”

He said a number of competitors have added video capabilities at the pump, but the success of these programs is yet to be determined.

“Prepared food is our highest margin segment, so we want to drive customers at the dispensers in to buy these products,” said Hyche. “We’ve had discussions with several companies and are working on initiatives that I’d like to see come to fruition in the next year.”

One of the keys around the new selling concepts is locating technology at different places, whether at the dispenser with video monitors or apps or inside the store at a kiosk or with a digital sign.

“In my view, as digital capabilities continue to explode, how can retailers ensure everything stays in sync?” said Collupy. “For example, if there’s a sign with an item a customer can order either on their mobile device or at a kiosk in the store, how can the retailer keep the item description, price and other attributes consistent?”

Experts agree that the capability of tying the price book from a back-office system to other digital mediums is something that has to be reckoned with. Having to sync each component separately and manually is not an efficient option and could even be detrimental to the process and goal.