at their fingertips

Huck’s Food & Fuel (Carmi, IL) is no stranger to big ideas. The company’s latest brainstorm has the chain saving on phone calls made from stores to regional and district managers. It’s also getting operations staffers more involved in the decision-making process surrounding competitive gas pricing.

A little more than a year ago, Huck’s President Mark Bayley and Vice President of Petroleum Paul Melton noticed how prevalent the BlackBerr y—a wireless connectivity solution that allows users to communicate via e-mail and stay in constant contact— had become. The two discussed how Huck’s could benefit by integrating the BlackBerr y into their business.

“We’re making a transition to having operations supervise gas pricing at store level,” says Melton. “We wanted a tool for our regional and district managers that reported and recorded each move. Typically, the problem is they were going to spend all that time on the phone gathering information from store people.”

So Huck’s came up with a simple stock e-mail and loaded it on all its back-office systems at store level. Current pricing requests and competitive updates go to the district manager and the regional manager’s BlackBerries. The regional manager at that point looks over the survey and replies to all so they know what exact price to go to—providing a concise, manageable stream of information.

Making the call
Although the BlackBerr y was the company’s first choice, Huck’s wanted to be sure it was the best equipment for its specific needs. For awhile the decision was between the Blackberr y and a handheld PDA.

“We considered using handheld PDAs, but the live e-mail with the BlackBerr y made it the obvious choice,” says Melton. “One weakness of the BlackBerr y is that it cannot handle e-mail attachments like the PDA can, but we keep everything in e-mail format so we can send it back and forth. If there’s something a regional or district manager needs in Excel format, notification is sent that the report is ready and they can get the report on their laptop, if needed. And the Excel reports are so huge, there’s no way they could be viewed on a PDA anyway. There’s a five-to 15-minute delay between e-mails, and they communicate perfectly even when they’re just catching one bar.”

The company contacted its communications provider, Verizon, and purchased a couple of units for a test run—just to see for themselves how easily they worked. Huck’s tested the units for three to four months before it felt comfortable taking the idea company-wide. Today every regional and district manager has a BlackBerr y, as do a couple of corporate executives who also want to be in the loop with store-level moves—about 15 people total.

“We set this up through our Verizon provider, but anyone can call their phone company and get their version of the BlackBerry,” says Melton. “It cost us $350 per unit and a monthly fee of $60 per unit. It’s hard to measure the ROI, but I’d easily say that through all the efficiencies we’ve gained that we’ve easily made it. How can you put a number on getting more real-time information to the correct people?”

Change for the better
While the BlackBerries have been in place for less than a year, Huck’s is already seeing a payoff in the form of decreased time-consuming phone calls and more input from the company on retail changes.

“I’m sitting here right now scrolling through every move reported through the system,” says Melton. “Everything is at our fingertips—I can read reports from the last three months and every response from a particular store. It really helps us stay nimble and create a large level of history for our stores. We can go back and, instead of relying on managers to tell us problems, we can look at a store’s history and decipher who is causing retail gas pricing to go down or up.

“The BlackBerr y puts more responsibility on the executives, but it’s a tool in their hand to make them more involved in the decision-making,” he continues. “We used to centralize our information, but now we have operations handling their own pricing. And every price move and decision made by a regional or district manager is shared with corporate and recorded.”

As Huck’s moves forward with the BlackBerr y program, it continues to find new ways to streamline its business and cut costs. Currently the company is developing a stock e-mail for managers to input their stores’ daily volumes. And as Huck’s pushes for higher gas volumes, managers are a part of that, sending in retail changes. The company can see how much a store is selling each day, what their goals are and what its competition is doing—everything they need to make an informed decision. What’s more, the company is looking into the possibility of using the technology to communicate in-store sales in the near future.

The company is also researching using the BlackBerries as cell phones. They already have that capability, so as district and regional managers get closer to the end of their cell phone contracts, they can be combined into one unit.

“As we come up with things we’re doing manually, we integrate it into the BlackBerr y,” says Melton. “Any kind of daily reporting info, we get into the system, which helps us cut down on our phone calls. Then we can spend more time in stores with managers helping them with the problems they face.”

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