IoT: Getting Connected, Staying Aware

The Internet of Things is helping to better connect the c-store world, saving time and money for operators.

By Brad Perkins, Contributing Editor

It’s 3 a.m., and your phone beeps or rings. Dread sets in. But it’s not a clerk telling you something is wrong or the police telling you the store has been robbed. It’s your beer cooler, and it’s letting you know it’s warm.

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It’s not the future. It’s the Internet of Things (IoT), and it can bring faster response times, cost savings, inventory control and real-time asset management in ways that go beyond cameras, pump shutoff devices or security tape. And it can save thousands of dollars in time and inventory.

“If you start getting a freon leak in a cooler, then your temperature goes up gradually, so you might not recognize it right away,” said Michael Meyer, facility operations officer at Meyer Oil Co., which operates 18 Mach 1 stores in Illinois and Indiana. “When those units go down, it takes a short time for dairy products and perishables to spoil, or you’re not offering the cold beer and soda that you want to offer.”

Relying on people to notice means notification doesn’t always happen immediately. Temperatures rise slowly. Leaks drip unseen. Managers and clerks are too busy to see a door left open. Digital sensors can tell you when the cooler is warm, or when a pipe is leaking, or even when a product has been moved.

“In the convenience retail world, IoT—and more specifically, a web of sensors—provides the potential for a paradigm shift in the way we manage our facilities and leverage our daily labor investment,” said Jeremie Myhren, chief information officer for Road Ranger, a Rockford, Ill.-based chain of travel centers, truck stops and convenience stores.

International Data Corp. predicts that by 2030, 30 billion objects will be connected to the internet. The opportunity is there. For Meyer, it became an opportunity to experiment with sensors from Monnit—that monitor coolers and back doors—after hearing about the possibility from peers.

“They had temperature control sensors that will email, text—start alerting the proper individuals that your registration is not at the temperature it wants to be,” he said. “It is also programmable to account for defrost time. So, if the temperature starts climbing up, but doesn’t reset, you are notified.”

And it’s not just coolers. Sensors and technology can do everything from sense a spill at the pump to alert you about a leaky pipe or overflowing toilet, as well as regulate temperatures and even stop crime.

“We’re using GPS-tracking technology inside tobacco products,” said Sean Sportun, manager of security and loss prevention for Circle K’s Central Canada Division. “When it comes to armed robberies, we’ve seen that those are the main target over the past few years.”

It’s similar technology to what banks use to track the money stolen in a bank robbery. It can let police know where the criminal is heading and has been a rousing success.

“We’ve had 100% success rate. We’ve had 47 incidents in Central and Western Canada where they’ve been deployed during a robbery, and we’ve been able to support local law enforcement in locating these individuals and prosecuting them.”

Sportun’s team combines sensors with video to give police almost real-time video of the criminals. Knowing when a crime occurs could help spare a second store from the crime.
There are countless stories and uses for sensors that can talk to each other and to the people who need to know. They can send alerts, give directions and even order replacements. And they don’t break the bank.

“These tools and sensors are becoming increasingly inexpensive and increasingly realistic to implement,” Myhren said. “Basic temperature and door sensors with internet/database connectivity can be implemented for less than $1,000 total per site, with effectively no ongoing carrying cost.”

What is IoT, exactly?

“IoT has two elements to it,” said Daniel Burrus, CEO of Burrus Research Associates, which monitors global advancements in technology. “One is machines talking to machines. The other is sensors that are monitoring things and you can sense many different things—the position or presence or proximity of something, velocity and motion, temperature, humidity, moisture, sound, gas, force or load, leaks, electromagnetic, acceleration, the movement of an object.”

IoT devices, Burrus said, have three main benefits: awareness, autonomy and action. The tools are aware of what’s happening, they are autonomous in that they can send alerts and can be set up to do what the owner wants them to do.

“It’s connecting an asset to anything,” Burrus said. “And when it’s connected, data is automatically sent to you without you having to tell it to do that, so you can get a warning about something.” The actionable piece comes with seeing the data and reacting to it, allowing owners and operators to save cost and time.

“As we start seeing the manufacturers or suppliers that provide all of the things you sell in the store adding sensors to all of those products and that all being linked to the front of the store, you’ll have much more intelligence, so you can restock; for example, if something is getting low,” Burrus said. “It can let you know automatically you only have one left and we can automatically place the order for you.”

There is also the potential for IoT devices to offer additional services, like adding an Amazon Alexa to a kiosk so people can ask for directions or inquire whether a product is in stock.

Eventually, it will grow into prediction and prevention. So instead of getting the notice at 3 a.m. that something is wrong, you will instead get the notice that something needs servicing, allowing time to fix the issue before it escalates.

When combined with blockchain benefits from suppliers and vendors that help track shipments, make payments, lower costs, increase security and increase transparency, it all adds up to a more connected, leaner and more fluid environment, freeing up employees to do their jobs more effectively. This, in turn, will lead to greater customer satisfaction.

And the best part is that getting started is easy. With so many options, it pays to look at what’s available, what your needs are and how you can use it.

“It starts with awareness,” Burrus said. “You don’t have to do everything at once. Pick one thing you want to do that doesn’t cost much and gives you a big result; maybe it’s a sensor in a cooler or maybe it’s a water detector that you put underneath all the toilets or wherever else you might be worried about a leak that you might not notice real fast. Those are easy to do, they are already available, they’re inexpensive and they can save you a lot of time and a lot of money.”