TECHNOLOGY WHITEPAPER: Improving C-Store Operations with Network Automation

Better ROI on staff time, fuel operations, maintenance and more.Network automation ensures that all the moving parts of your daily store operations run smoothly.

By Dennis Jensen, Regional Director, Acumera Inc.

Ensuring a great customer experience is a critical component for increasing sales, but that is challenging because of staffing issues. Hiring good people and keeping them on board is top of mind for many companies, but the store employees are really just part of the challenge. In most cases they can’t cover all of the issues related to daily store operations. This paper will review how network automation can support in-store employees, other staffers, and management, so they can focus on customers and top-line business growth.

Additionally, this paper will also examine how a solid network plan can reduce per-store costs, lower the stress related to PCI audits and provide hard data to fuel bigger profits.

Many in-store employees don’t have a set schedule to check equipment, so that means an outage will most likely be noticed by a customer if that person doesn’t notify a store clerk or manager, the outage will just drive away more business over time. A good network configuration gives the headquarters visibility of key networked services like ATM, Western Union, DVRs, and others.

The right set-up will allow the corporate IT staff, along with operations and maintenance teams, to see an outage before the store employees even notice. That is a critical issue because a fix can be put in place before a customer leaves with a bad store experience, never to return. Knowing that equipment is down would normally cause a service call (truck roll) or tech support call to the headquarters.

Truck rolls are most likely when the technical staff doesn’t have visibility into the local network at the store. Maintenance site visits cost, on average, at least $400 for most c-store companies (fuel, staff time, lost revenue from outage, etc.) and the average store could need 6 truck rolls per year. In cases where a great network is in place, the technical team can go through trouble-shooting procedures remotely and the monitoring will confirm if those efforts are successful. That kind of infrastructure will reduce maintenance calls by at least 33%. For a 30 store chain that is a savings of $23,760 per year and for a 100 store chain the savings is about $79,000 per year.

Network Efficiency
A great network configuration can drive additional efficiencies by sending alert messages to team members’ mobile devices. That allows maintenance and operations to stay on top of new issues, even with they are working at another location. In fact, the mobile alerts give them a chance to repair new outages on their way back to the office, earning greater efficiencies and cost savings for maintenance operations. In the end, monitoring with alert messaging lets in-store teams focus more on customers and it also gives the parent company the ability to grow without being forced to recruit as many new staffers.

Fuel delivery is critical for convenience stores. Many companies with multiple locations will use a fuel sensing system or they will have the in store staff ‘read the sticks’ and forward that information in by phone or fax. Those processes can work, but networking will optimize fuel operations. Sensing systems at each store can be networked to transmit data across a broadband connection.

Additionally, tank data can be polled many times each day, so the operations team will know the fuel levels at every store whenever the information is needed. Having that information makes it easier to schedule the most optimal deliveries, getting fuel to the stores that need it, but also allowing fuel buyers to purchase higher volumes when prices drop to ‘top off’ tanks at other locations. That greatly lowers the cost of fuel delivery and raises the company’s margins. Cost savings is another way to increase profits. Reviewing the company’s current network is important because older infrastructure is actually more expensive in many cases. Some companies are still using traditional phone lines with modems that cover multiple data points at one store. Switching to a broadband connection at each location offers a sizable savings each month. For example, a company might use analog lines for their ATGs, Money Order Machines, and ATMs. Each line costs an average of $30 per month for a total expense of $1080 annually.

Those services can be migrated to a broadband connection to save $720 per store each year. Older hardware brings in another type of cost….critical failure. If a modem goes down the data is unavailable. For many companies, pulling in store information on a daily basis is critical, not to mention end of month or end of quarter data. Newer hardware reduces that risk, but doesn’t take it away entirely. However, a smart network design will include the option of failover for any company that needs the highest availability possible. In most cases, cellular failover will be the best option. It is not only available in most areas, but because the connection will be needed infrequently, the rates are much lower than traditional cell plans.

PCI Audits are a stressful issue for the entire industry. Larger organizations with millions of credit card transactions are trying to work through all of the items in the audit while smaller companies don’t have the staff to cover everything and they are trying to figure out what they really have to do. In both cases, a great network design or networking partner will cover many issues. It is important to confirm that no networking supplier or network design will cover all of the PCI audit components. Some issues need to be managed by internal staff (security policies and password procedures for example). The right network will include firewall security at each store location along with external network scans, network access tracking, networking monitoring and more. For smaller c-store companies where 100% PCI compliance isn’t considered possible, the organization can look at limiting liability with a trusted network supplier to cover the same critical issues.

That will make each location a tougher target for the bad guys and they will be much more likely to move on to a ‘soft target” where the credit card data is easier
to access.

Reporting Power
Reporting is already in place for many larger convenience store companies, but the benefits of data mining can provide a road map to increased sales for most organizations with multiple sites. Understanding trends in fuel consumption, leveraging printed reports for PCI audits, tracking equipment on the network, monitoring broadband uptime and other reports can provide insights that drive top line sales or increased profits. Dynamic reporting can be even more valuable because information from the stores is automatically migrated into the company’s operations software saving significant time for the accounting team and it also avoids data entry errors.

Reporting will definitely be more important as time goes on. New equipment being designed for stores will be ‘Internet ready’ with the ability to transfer operational data on a daily or real time basis. C-store companies will be able to track things like coffee, tea and other beverage preferences at each site and across regions. Having that information will optimize stocking at each store to meeting buyer preferences….driving customer retention, top line sales and profit
margins.

Having a great network is a critical component for success for multi-site convenience store operations and it doesn’t matter if is created by internal staff or provided/managed by an outside vendor. Even if a company has one or some of the features, the return on investment only increases as the network is optimized. The result is having in-store staff focused on customers and the most efficient support team creating a wonderful shopping experience for everyone coming into the stores. Of course, the convenience store company not only earns a growing loyal customer base, but happier staff and much lower employee/operations costs.

About Acumera:
Founded in 2002, Acumera provides Trusted Connection Services to multi-site merchants, specializing in the reduction of headaches caused by network management and security issues. Customers are free to focus on running their businesses because Acumera actively manages their networks and provides unparalleled visibility and remote management capability. Acumera gets customers’ stores, network clients and devices securely connected and keeps them connected. In addition to network status, merchants have real-time insight into key operational measures, such as fuel inventory levels and environmental and food safety temperatures. As a result, Acumera customers say they love their network. To learn more, visit Acumera at www.acumera.net.

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