Energy efficiency. Equipment monitoring. Inventory and price optimization. Facility automation. Touchless pay points. The list of technology solutions available to the modern c-store can seem endless. But with careful planning and vendor assistance, convenience stores can corral that data sent by multiple touchpoints into one simple place accessible at a smartphone holder’s fingertips.
“You can always tap into the automated systems,” said Dan Soltis, vice president of real estate with CIMA Developers, the property division of The PRIDE Stores, which operates 16 locations in the Chicagoland area. With the tap of a screen, The PRIDE Stores can view and assess the systems that control the lighting, security cameras, refrigeration, fuel pumps, HVAC and even the carbonated beverage machine.
While this accessibility greatly improves operating efficiency, knowing where to begin is a challenge in and of itself. Soltis advised first assessing the feasibility of each project, figuring the return on investment (ROI) and identifying the easiest or most efficient areas to start automating.
“I think the lighting’s probably the easiest way to make an impact,” Soltis said. “The LED technology is still the best technology out there.”
Soltis noted that the lighting industry is now innovating with form and function in its designs. That came in handy when zoning for one of The PRIDE Stores sites required what’s called dark sky compliance.
“We had to design the site to make sure it controlled
“We had to design the site to make sure it controlled the overspill — the uplight, the backlight, the glare — all of that,” he said.
Soltis said the vendors he’s dealt with have been extremely helpful in crunching the numbers.
“I know in the lighting industry, in the solar industry and in some of the automated systems that run the entire c-store, they do have worksheets that do help you identify your initial investment and then your returns,” he said.
Focus on the Customer
Still, all of the tech solutions won’t benefit an operation unless it prioritizes its customers. As much as millennials and Gen-Xers love high tech, not all consumers are as savvy.
“Some customers never want to order digitally,” said Art Sebastian, vice president of digital experience for Casey’s General Stores. “They want to continue to do telephone orders, just like they do at Domino’s or Pizza Hut or wherever.”
Casey’s, famous for its pizza, operates 2,200 stores in 16 Midwestern states, which also makes it the nation’s fifth largest pizza chain. It introduced an automated telephone ordering system to complement its digital online and app-based ordering tools.
There’s a clear upside for the store, he noted. Handwritten phone orders would invariably result in mistakes, with busy workers forgetting to add another topping or overlooking to charge for that extra topping. Now, the system recognizes caller phone numbers and presents an order history that is easily repeated or modified. It’s also faster.
“So, every phone call, that’s three minutes of labor I’m wasting on the phone,” said Sebastian. “This is now automating it, moving it significantly faster. So we’re saving time, and that time I can turn back to making better quality pizzas.”
That adds up to less expense and more revenue.
Lifting the Bottom Line
Smaller chains are usually running “lean and mean,” Soltis pointed out. “So any way to use innovation to help folks work more efficiently is always going to be a benefit to the bottom line, so that’s always going to be a big focus.”
Tech can help squeeze the most out of your investments in large equipment that performs many essential tasks throughout a store. The PRIDE Stores, Soltis noted, used to have a cumbersome repair process based on paper lists submitted by managers via fax machine.
Now, he said, the company’s new digital app-based system has cleaned that up and streamlined repairs.
“All of the store managers now have that app on their phone,” he said. “They can download their lists, download their photos, and all that gets automated into one location.”
Soltis has plenty of examples of tech innovations that bring efficiency to the entire store, inside and outside, but one of the most significant applies to the canopy. It involves adding solar panels to the top of the canopy that then link to the electrical grid system, and allows the retailer to gain credits back from the municipality for energy generated. “We’re looking into that,” Soltis said, but he added that once again, the final decision will take into account the feasibility, the cost and what makes sense from an ROI perspective.
Also in the forecourt, more efficient fuel pumps speed fueling turnover, as do touchless smartphone pay applications. Large digital screens can host display and video ads that bring in revenue.
Store renovations also bring tax benefits. Whether financing or leasing, stores may be able to deduct the full value of improvements. Under Section 179 of the IRS tax code, businesses can deduct from gross income the full purchase price of qualifying equipment and software.
That tax benefit could free up seed financing to get the ball rolling and ease the initial cash outlay. Stacking that with other benefits like rebates is part of a smart strategy.
Digital updates add real world revenue.