The Expanding Back Office

Cloud and mobile are among the technologies pushing the envelope of internal store systems.

By Ed Collupy

Recent store visits have often allowed me to spend time in the ‘back office’ and have reaffirmed for me that retail store managers have a lot going on.

There are people interactions, printed and posted operational & marketing directives, compliance forms to be completed, cash to be deposited, technology to interact with, and more. And then there have been interactions with back-office providers that have confirmed, just what I saw at stores; the back office isn’t in the back—it can be anywhere, even away from the store, which happens far more often than it used to.

As business models in the c-store/retail petroleum industry have changed, their needs with back-office systems “are dramatically different,” said Ken Piddington, chief information officer at MRE Consulting and formerly at Global Partners, told me during a recent conversation. He sees retailers and wholesale fuel distributors using several back-office solutions. Although traditional back-office solutions have been extended either through development efforts or by acquiring others “there isn’t one that does everything,” Piddington shared. He highlighted the need to be sure there’s a solid plan to integrate systems so each system can get to the other and share data.

BRAINS OF THE BUSINESS
In those back offices I visited, managers were not only downloading their price book and uploading sales data from the point-of-sale system to the back-office system, but they were using the data to evaluate their own store’s performance, benchmark themselves against their peers and set a plan for their day on the sales floor with customers.

Matthew Webb, operations manager at Webb’s Auto & Truck Services, operates a Circle K/76 store in Bell Gardens, Calif., and refers to his back-office systems as the “brains of the business.” A back-office capability he uses is a Transaction Analysis tool that lets him analyze trends like average fuel fills and customer transactions to see if his “customer base is growing or shrinking.”

Webb, when I spoke with him was in his ‘back office’ using another back-office system to prepare his payroll using a cloud-based solution. And he’s been ready to adopt other early on ‘back office’ solutions for his business. He has participated in beta tests with an automated promotions platform Circle K was bringing to their franchisees, that to Piddington’s point is integrated to his traditional back-office price book module, and is currently piloting a Virtual Inventory system.

GROWING CAPABILITIES
Mark Jordan, President of South Carolina-based Refuel Inc., refers to his back-office system as “a platform” he uses beyond price book and standardized reporting. Being able to perform analysis on what happened last week, track down a transaction tying a receipt and video clip together, and customize reporting around sales and purchases helps in not only a new concept store with wine tasting, but in his other four locations.

Jordan also said his alternative payment and discount fuel program has ‘back-office’ capabilities; providing “insights into customers such as what they are buying and then customize offers to customers.”

At Tooley Oil based in Sacramento, Calif., David Tooley, vice president of marketing, worked with his solution provider to extend the ‘back office’ to what his customers were buying and now is conducting market basket analyses. He has been able to “place items and lay out the store, evaluate cross promotions, and know what items customers are more apt to buy with one another.”

The fuel side of the business also has back-office solutions for inventory monitoring, problem alerting and end-to-end pricing. Tooley Oil also has a wholesale fuel business and relies on a couple of back-office point solutions with features and functions specific to managing the wet stock part of their business and the retailers they supply.

Meanwhile, at West Des Moines-based Kum & Go, general managers begin “a circle” with competitive price input to a back-office fuel pricing system that is sent to centralized systems where pricing and other fuel data can be “mined, analyzed and modeled” before its sent back to the store for the “manager to act on it and then generate more data,” Matt Spackman, vice president fuels at Kum & Go told me. To help with communications and execution the Kum & Go team uses a homegrown system that helps their store employees manage tasks and notify other back-office users of them being complete.

MEATY ISSUES
With foodservice becoming so prevalent throughout the c-store industry the traditional back-office solution providers continue to improve their software by adding important elements to their software. One group of back-office users recently learned about a feature in their provider’s system where, to help with inventory control, you can print scanable shelf labels for items not sold individually, like a bin of cut vegetables or mashed potatoes. They also learned that in the latest software release nutrition facts and cooking unit of measures are features that will provide additional back-office capabilities.

“We didn’t understand foodservice food costs at all in the beginning,” Jordan said. He attributes using the foodservice module of his ‘back-office’ system, which allows him “to calculate item costs by drilling down into component costs,” to its success today.

Labor continues to drive c-store operators to find ways to control costs. Many cloud-based labor management systems rely on back-office data to make its own back-office solution. Fuel tank levels, from the underground storage tank, can move from the store’s Automatic Tank Gauge to a shared ‘back office’ where data can be accessed away from the store on a mobile device. In today’s world of retail technology, the cloud and mobile are now part of the back office, allowing it to be anywhere and anything.

So a good question you might ask is, “Where and what’s in my back office?”

Ed Collupy, executive consultant at W. Capra Consulting Group can be reached at ecollupy@wcapra.com and be sure to visit www.capraplus.com for more retail technology and business insights. Collupy has IT leadership and business team experience providing strategic, operational, and project leadership to retailers, emerging businesses, and technology companies.

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