Off-site management evolves with iPad, cloud and real-time options.
The moment Les Rose could remotely access the pointof- sale (POS) registers at his company’s 52-store chain was the day he could finally take an out-of-town vacation.
“For many years, I couldn’t leave the city,” says Rose, IT manager for Las Vegas-based Rebel Oil Co., which has developed its system to the point where it can spot bad credit cards. “Today I have an 8-inch notebook [computer], so all I need is a wireless [connection] and I have the speed, power and connectivity to provide remote support.”
Buoyed by advances in telecommunications and consumer electronics (see timeline, below), the ability to remotely tie into one’s store automation— from video cameras to tank monitors, safes to coolers—is rapidly becoming an industry standard, posing a competitive threat to operators who can’t keep up. The world of remote is evolving as many tech issues reach the forefront:
- Web solutions. The growing number of software solutions that are Web-based means retailers can log on with a browser and access store data through laptops, BlackBerries and iPads.
- Going “real time.” Remote solutions offering so-called real-time data now allow retailers to be proactive spotting defective receipt printers before a customer fuels up or identifying thieving cashiers sooner.
- PCI concerns. The need to comply with new payment card industry (PCI) standards is throwing a spotlight on data security.
- Data manipulation. Predictive solutions can analyze data pulled from numerous sources to help with supply-chain logistics, operational issues, marketing and merchandising. Interest in remote access to store data and what it means to operations has been an increasingly popular topic, says Andrew Robinson, director of POS marketing for Greensboro, N.C.-based Gilbarco Veeder-Root. The ability to review numbers, change prices and build reports through remote communications may mean a competitive advantage for those who can achieve it at multiple levels within their operations, he says.
“They want technology that will enable them to make more real-time decisions that could impact and drive business,” he says.
Evolution of Remote
Remotely accessing store automation is not new. It began developing in the late 1990s, when affordable highspeed broadband became available.
The hurdle was integration. Beyond connectivity via phone lines, retailers required hardware that could interface with networks, other devices and software solutions. Further undermining widespread integration was the absence of technical standards and proprietary struggles between suppliers. Though standards-building efforts have since emerged, integration remains a challenge.
But the stakes were always high. Remote management as a concept can involve critical parts of storelevel operations: headquarters-tostore communications, upgrades to software, sales-movement data, pricing updates, store security, shrink and internal theft, equipment monitoring, cash handling and inventory management.
Rebel Oil’s experience with remote management mirrors many in the industry. About 10 years ago, internal IT staff developed a virtual private network (VPN); through the Internet, phone links and compatible devices the company has been able to pull data from stores in a periodic or “batch” mode.
With this system, employees can identify failing card readers, review transaction data and manage the company’s rewards program all remotely. They’ve even built an algorithm that monitors for credit-card fraud. The system pulls data from the stores into the corporate mainframe, from which Rose, by clicking an icon on his desktop, taps into the server at any individual store. So no matter where he is, he can log into any of his store’s POS registers, controllers, surveillance devices and even slot machines.
The next phase of remote access for Rose is the ability to move from a batch method of data collection to real time, which lets him spot a printer on the fritz before a customer starts the fueling process.
“What we’re hoping for is to go from a ‘pull’ [system] to a ‘push,’ ” he says, describing how he has to look “backwards” to a report of past inci- dences vs. “looking forward” to data from a device as an event is happening. “So instead of waiting for a cashier to find out something is wrong, [the system] will text or e-mail me. … So I don’t need a customer to try the pump and get angry before I can do something.”
Proactive to Predictive
The ability to be proactive may be a “nice to have” capability, but some retailers may question its priority, says Nick Otter, president of Sigma Oil Corp., a La Mesa, Calif.-based technology solutions company that produces a back-office product called Series2K. “Some may ask, ‘Why do I need to know that a store sold a pack of cigarettes 10 minutes ago?’ ” he says. “But what happens afterward is key.”
Looking at dated reports means relying on people’s memories, forcing them to think back and remember specific incidences. But real time allows for a sense of urgency and the ability to catch an unscrupulous cashier even before he or she has gone home.
Real-time information becomes increasingly important in a highturnover environment, says Wesley Loh, vice president of retail solutions for Altametrics, Costa Mesa, Calif. “It’s the biggest challenge in the c-store space,” he says. “You’ve got clerks and turnover, people who don’t know what to do when a system goes down. Now we can provide store managers with the information—in a proactive environment—to minimize downtime.”
Rose of Rebel Oil is working with Altametrics to move toward a realtime environment. And as he describes a proactive desire, many in the supplier community are actually moving a step further, providing a “predictive” benefit. In that aspect, Rebel Oil’s inhouse system does hint of that capability, being able to identify overused and potentially fraudulent credit cards.
But the idea’s potential is extensive. Drew Mize, vice president of product management and marketing for The Pinnacle Corp., Arlington, Texas, says Pinnacle’s fuel-supply solution does predictive analysis as it remotely takes inventory of a chain’s tank levels. The tools communicate to dispatchers, tying that information to area fuel suppliers. The system then predicts run-outs based on sales trends and velocities.
“So when a driver is getting fuel to deliver to sites, he can find out what current inventories [are],” Mize says. “Then he can ask, ‘Can I get all the fuel I need from this [particular terminal]? And if I can’t, what are alternatives?’ ” These technologies also come in any number of user interfaces, some giving visual ways spot problems. “[New solutions can] provide managers a real-time, map-based application to remotely see inventory and head off supply problems before they happen,” says Scott Cilento, senior vice president of operations, fuel management, for Houston-based FuelQuest.
But just as the potential of remote management grows, so does the concern for security. Otter of Sigma Oil says while his company has focused on remote access in its work with London-based BP, it made sure to tackle the issue of data security.
One of the strategies was giving only specific computers access to internal networks. “We don’t want upset managers who get fired to then be able to walk into a cyber café and delete data,” he says.
For many IT managers, even more concern arises when consumer electronics, such as Apple’s popular iPad, filter into the mix. “The iPad and other tablet-based computing [devices] have been a big piece of innovation that has expanded flexibility for a lot of our retailers,” says Robinson of Gilbarco. But of course, PCI compliance has placed a significant emphasis on data security— especially with regard to cardholder information.
For many retailers, introducing new devices such as iPads into their internal networks means new programming. But open architecture, which allows for a standardized way of communicating with devices, has helped, Robinson says.
In addition, Gilbarco’s current POS design has physically separated the hardware associated with creditand debit-card transactions, bypassing any PCI issues and allowing for a faster development cycle. “Through segregation of sensitive card data, we enable [our customers] to leverage the iPad through virtual network computing,” he says. “They don’t want to put a team of people in cars to go to each and every site.”
Though not all devices are capable of remote access, it remains the larger vision, especially with the complexities a c-store operation presents.
Speaking on the topic of cash management and safes, Ed Grondahl, executive vice president of global sales for Tidel Engineering, Carrollton, Texas, says engineers for his company’s products had the foresight to install programming that allows for device integration. “They understood there would be changing peripherals,” Grondahl says. “So when you want to talk to our system and [ask] for information—like how do I get [bank deposit data], and what’s the format it’s in when Tidel sends it to me— you know what the answer is going to look like.”
With devices being able to talk to each other remotely via either a VPN setup or a browser and a Web-hosted solution, tasks such as rationalizing utility costs become a real-time possibility. Robinson of Gilbarco says its Web-based Wisdom product along with a centralized piece of equipment on site can tap into the store’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system; lighting; and coolers to control and monitor those devices remotely.
Going even further, Loh of Altametrics and Otter of Sigma Oil say yet another dimension of remote access is to completely outsource computer systems typically housed at corporate to a third-party “cloud” vendor.
The term “cloud” applies to a provider that is equipped with the servers, databases and climate-controlled environment to provide a retailer with all its computing needs off-site, says Loh. The benefits include not having to buy or maintain equipment and the ability to increase or cut capacity with the click of a mouse. “It’s a subscription-based service where we remove the cost to barriers of entry,” Loh says. “So I can say, ‘Hey, I as a c-store chain don’t have to invest hundreds of thousands to do that.’ ”
Rose of Rebel Oil looks forward to working with Loh’s team and can envision the concept of remote access having applications beyond technical support. Communications via cell phones and iPads to mobile customers is a case in point.
“We can move to texting and sending coupons and offering discounts,” he says. “When technology gets ubiquitous, it opens up an opportunity.”
Once simply a two-way audio alarm response, remote management has evolved into “real time” accessibility to safes, coolers, tank monitors, money-order machines, cash registers, alarm systems and video cameras, according to Tim Lindblom, vice president of Gulfcoast Software Solutions, Clearwater, Fla.
But Lindblom warns that technology is only part of the equation; real-time access is pivotal. “Purely as an investigative tool, [technology] will not provide immediate results,” he says. “However, combined with real-time alerts, it allows administrators to address issues in minutes, providing a strong deterrent to questionable activity.”