Forecourt technology: Putting it all together
It is a dichotomous time for petrol stations in Ireland. This month we examine how to take advantage of the real opportunities in forecourt retailing
11 November 2008
With more forecourts becoming mini retail environments the trick is enticing the customer with a top quality product and a fast service. Drivers want to get their fuel, grocery or food-to-go and move on as quickly as possible, which also allows for more throughput for the forecourt.
Technology is a valuable assistant in the ongoing battle to secure profit and slick, efficient business. Forecourt retailers must keep up-to-date with the latest technology, enabling them to increase profits, improve business growth and improve customer experience.
Increased throughput means increased sales
According to Paul Farren, general manager of Forecourt Systems, the main way forecourts can differentiate themselves from the rest of the retail trade is obviously by the way they sell their fuel. “That’s a fairly apparent statement but it’s all about how the fuel is sold whether that is on price or ease of use.”
Farren said a lot of forecourts are enticing customers with cheaper price for fuel. And to do that they have to have systems that allow them to reduce their overheads. “Dispensing systems would need to be high quality to get good throughput on the site. It’s no good having low cost fuel if your forecourt is constantly jammed so efficient throughput is important. If the pumps are too slow or old it’s going to be a problem.”
Farren said pay at the pump will be the most significant thing to come down the line for forecourt operators over the next few months. It will increase security as fuel will have to be prepaid and it will increase throughput as it means no trip into the shop’s pay station.
Furthermore, it may mean that rural forecourts that are forced to close at night because it is not economically viable to have the station open will be able to run unmanned petrol pumps for 24 hoyrs. “A lot of sites are being snapped up and closing down and unmanned petrol stations may be key to allowing a site that’s on the verge of closing down reduce all its overheads, staffing and electricity costs and so on. It’s probably the biggest thing happening in the sector in last five to six years.”
Integrated technology essential for forecourt management
Because a forecourt has more facets to it than general retailers, the importance of technology on a forecourt really comes into play. For instance EPOS is an important part of petrol station management, especially in a forecourt setup, and it is all about how well integrated the disparate systems are. “Forecourts have more dimensions to consider and these include the tanks and tank gauges, dispensing equipment and security. For example, you can really damage your sales and the environment through a leak in the tanks. So it’s important for forecourt owners that tech is completely integrated in all the forecourt systems.”
Conn Loy of Ioresource said the systems and technology deployed into forecourt environments are designed to address the business issues relevant to that sector and operate as a business tool that improves productivity, reduces costs and delivers efficiencies across the business.
According to Loy a brief comparison of the type of technologies deployed 10 years ago and those being deployed today will illustrate a revolution in the use of technology by modern forecourt retailers. These changes are not simply cosmetic, or a matter of replacing an old style cash register with a PC based system and barcode scanner. “Current EPOS systems deployed into the forecourt sector are integrated business information systems that interface the forecourt business not just with the customer but with suppliers and key decision makers within the business.”
Originally designed to address issues such as shrinkage, stock management, labour overheads, and customer service, EPOS systems now deliver a range of functions that can not only deal with stock outs, over stocking and so on but can identify purchasing patterns, interface with supplier systems enabling electronic ordering, enhance customer service and so on.
“Recent years have seen the EPOS system move from being a simple front of store cash taking device to a fully integrated unit that can use point of service advertising to highlight special offers etc while the customer is being served, issue top ups, interface with vending machines, process credit/debit card payments, pay utility bills and so much more.”
According to Loy the level of differentiation that any retailer can expect from their technology solution will be determined by the features of that technology. He said the hardware, software and support services must deliver the feature set that the retailer needs not just for today but for tomorrow and into the future. “To that end it is crucial that the retailer is working with a solutions provider that knows the business and the technology. The more features the solution can support the easier it is to differentiate your business. Irrespective of current financial circumstances, service is still a critical aspect of forecourt retailing.”
Service remains key
Loy said controlling costs is now more critical than ever but retailers need to ensure that they don’t introduce cost cutting measures that will adversely affect how they service their customers’ requirements. “One area of technology that may be able to assist retailers in this manner is self service kiosks. Obviously solutions such as the NCR FastLane currently deployed by many of the larger retailers is too large for most forecourt convenience stores, but solutions based on a similar architecture scaled to suit the convenience store environment such as the FastLane Mini or EasyPoint Xpress Order and Pay can deliver cost savings across the board and improve the customer service experience. Self Service is set to become a significant development in convenience stores over the coming years.”
Another area of technology that has evolved as part of the solutions being deployed in the forecourt sector is the use of hand held or portable computer technology. “Solutions originally deployed for simple stock taking applications now incorporate goods inwards, returns, price checking, product labelling, shelf edge labelling and order processing.”
He said simple batch devices such as the Unitech PT-630 are still used in large numbers throughout this sector while other retailers prefer a wireless system such as the Nordic ID RF601 Piccolink product. “More recently we have seen a trend towards Windows CE based devices such as the Unitech HT660 series running on 802.11 type networks with separate belt mount printers for printing labels, tickets and more … as can be done with the Printek FieldPro family of printers.”
Loy said a key advantage of this type of technology is that it can be used as “easily for delivery vans and warehouses as it can for in-store solutions. Again the secret of a successful deployment of a mobile solution is to work with a partner that knows the business and the technology”.
Forecourt technology to enhance customer experience
According to Dominic Feeney, systems director of CBE, forecourts can only differentiate themselves in a few ways, as more and more forecourts are offering full convenience facilities the primary method of differentiation open to them is to improve the customer experience. Technology offers forecourt owner methods of doing this; increased integration allows the forecourt retailers offer faster transaction times and a broader range of products, such as integrated E-top up, integrated pay-at-pump.
Technology also gives the retailer better controls such as integrated DVR with pumps to control drive-offs, integrated advertising at POS to drive sales, Wi-Fi handheld terminals empower the retailer with more functionality on the shop floor, thus improving productivity and controls.
“Technology is a vital part of forecourt setup and sales strength. Retailers have to have an advanced technological solution to enable them compete in today’s competitive environment. With the economic downturn, technology provided the retailer with the tools to control their business, identify trends, highlight anomalies, reduce costs, increase efficiencies and maintain customer service.”
Digital video recording and other systems
According to Feeney the biggest development in the forecourt sector that CBE sees is its integration with DVR systems to provide a comprehensive solution to manage drive-offs. The retailer is provided with both still images and live video footage for every fuel transaction. The still images identify both the individual holding the fuel nozzle and the registration number of the vehicle being fuelled. The live video footage comes via a PTZ camera that is controlled via the EPOS system and shows the vehicle driving up to the pump, the registration and the individual actually fuelling the vehicle. “One particular forecourt saw a 60 per cent reduction in drive-offs within three weeks of implementing this integrated DVR solution. The other major development from CBE over the last 12 months is the completion of our new head office solution which allows control of multiple sites from one location.”
Feeney believes that future developments in forecourt technology will centre on information and control, which will be key to running successful businesses, particularly in the current economic climate. “CBE provide a comprehensive solution that provides business owners with relevant information to make key decisions about the direction of their business. All information can be provided real-time and historical data for analysis purposes is available in easy to interpret formats at the touch of a button.”
As the number of forecourts in Ireland continues to decline and the number of multi-site operators increases there is a requirement for very powerful yet simple to use the types of product such as the head office control systems that CBE is espousing. “CBE has a very comprehensive head office suite of products that allow the head office maintain control over multiple sites and receive live customised management reports. This provides decision makers with the key information to enable them make the right choices for their business. CBE are now rolling out self-checkout products for both convenience and supermarket retailers. These solutions will further improve customer service and increase store efficiencies.”
Be a one stop shop
Chris Donnelly, retail IT manager, ADM Londis (that recently secured a deal to provide a forecourt presence at Texoil retail outlets) said forecourts need to offer value in their fuel and in-store offerings, but the key differentiator is the delivery of the service and complimentary products.
Donnelly said ‘road warriors’ ideally want to make as few stops as possible, therefore the offering which can provide the maximum utility will win out. “This may for example be a seated area for lunch with complimentary Wi-Fi, allowing a quick catch-up with the office e-mail, and also a sufficient range of product to get the essentials for later that evening at home.”
According to Donnelly the key to forecourt technology is as “integrated systems” as opposed to “interfaced systems”’.
“Many solutions providers can ‘interface’ to the different forecourt systems, such as EPOS and security systems. However, systems interfaces often do not work in ‘real-time’ and thus most of the benefits are not realised. An integrated solution is totally different. With an integrated Solution, EPOS becomes the dominant application and controls all other forecourt systems in real-time. This means that stock and pricing, drive-off’s, etc are all stored in one system, data and management are consistent and for example LCD screens are always up-to-date with EPOS prices.”
Today’s solutions for demands of tommorow
Donnelly believes that technology is perhaps the single most important component of a forecourt operation. He said the key to managing a successful forecourt is to ensure consistency across all critical systems. With the low margin delivered by fuel sales, it is critical to control and protect against ‘drive-offs’ and ‘over-fills’. “The Londis System creates a printout in the format used by An Garda Siochana for drive-off tracking, which includes a picture of the offender and the number plate.
“Using pre-pay, either in-store or via OPT, ‘over-fills’ can be eliminated. Environmental controls are also handled via a fully integrated EPOS application. Again, the key is implementing an integrated as opposed to interfaced suite of systems and applications.”
But what of the next 12-18 months? Can forecourt owners expect to see better tech products aid their business? Donnelly believes the future is right now and the key is investing in the correct system to assist not only with today’s demands, but with tomorrow’s. “Londis not only partners with solutions providers, but we develop our own, for example in a busy forecourt, controls do not stop simply at tank dips, deliveries and dealing with sales. HACCP, shop standards and so on all need to be controlled and to this end, ADM Londis has a powerful range of web or mobile based technologies which manage all these functions.”
Donnelly added that for multi-site operators, ADM Londis Retail IT will custom design control systems for KPI reporting to their requirements, thus eliminating paper and ensuring that management has full access to all critical information in real-time. “The key to success across many business sectors is to move away from informative historic data, to causal actionable information available in real time. The world has become connected via the web, now the web is going mobile.”
What they do
ADM Londis provides state of the art systems, fully integrated to all other forecourt systems, from EPOS, to cameras, car-wash to cigarette vending, tank gauge to in-store displays. Londis advises on the appropriate level of systems integration for the store size, location and turnover. Working with EPOS partners Londis can advise on the wiring requirements, much more critical in a forecourt where even the slightest spark can cause a serious incident. ADM Londis retailers can take advantage of its mobile ordering system, which allows customers to send their order via a text message before leaving the office, thus cutting down on queue times.
Forecourt Systems provides the complete turnkey package for forecourt from green field sites up to a full size new development, such as tanks, tank gauges fuel dispensers and pumps. It also provides EPOS units and security systems that takes pictures of a person at the pump and displays it at the cash till through the EPOS unit. The company also takes care of pipe work and its management between tanks and dispensers.
CBE provides a completely integrated EPOS solution and all the associated managed services. The EPOS system integrates to the pumps, outdoor payment options, the tank gauges, car wash, pole signs, telephone top-ups, bill-pay, advertising at EPOS, all of Ireland’s leading symbol group wholesalers, Wi-Fi handheld terminals, electronic shelf-edge labels, stock control, cash reconciliation solutions, comprehensive promotions functionality (including the ability to offer discounts on fuel based on other spending patterns), margin analysis, management reporting tools, loyalty systems, integrated Chip & Pin, and integrated fuel card processing.
Ioresource is Ireland’s leading value-added distributors of EPOS and AIDC/mobility products and solutions. As a trade-only organisation, it works in partnership with some of the world’s leading EPOS and AIDC vendors to provide the latest technology and solutions. Ioresource provides extensive logistical resources and expertise. With its main office and warehouse facilities, based in Rathnew Co Wicklow, have the capacity to supply most goods ex-stock, providing customers with better availability and shorter lead times. The benefit for vendors is in reduced inventory costs without compromise to the service they provide, while customers find that the cost/performance ratio of Ioresource’s product portfolio is second to none.