Technology: Bits, Bytes and Data Crunches

New technology, innovation connect products to categories, corporate to store

By  Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Content Development Coordinator

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New technologies are making their way from the forecourt and store into the back office, affecting the entire retail loop, from consumer to chain executive.

And with each new development, operators must decide if each is more about hype or if it can really pull in more traffic, cut energy costs or sell more doughnuts.

The types of automation are varied and diverse. The 34-store Rotten Robbie chain in the San Francisco Bay area recently announced the expansion of its mobile app to include a California lottery feed, allowing customers to see winning numbers as soon as the state reports them.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for our customers to get the winning lottery numbers efficiently,” says Kris Kingsbury, marketing and merchandising manager for Robinson Oil, Santa Clara, Calif. “And adding the daily updated winning numbers to our app makes sense as customers demand more mobile.”

In South Lake Tahoe, Calif., the Raley’s chain of 128 stores has initiated a plan to cut companywide energy use by 10%, prompting officials there to install a line of LED interior and exterior lighting. “[We’re] becoming a mode of energy efficiency,” says Randy Walthers, energy and utility manager for the chain. “Raley’s has incorporated numerous, and often groundbreaking, energy-savings techniques into [our] business plan.”

Whether the goal is to make an app more compelling or to cut a lighting bill, a common thread through each advancement is sophistication in the capacity of devices and networks to work faster and cleaner.

Nancy Mathes, owner of Paper Lite, Carmel, Ind., said retailers 15 years ago were simply “scanning and retrieving” documents, using technology to turn paperwork into a digital format.

Today, “we focus on automating the digital process,” she says, in which a scanned invoice is digitally turned into data that’s identified and routed to the right individual in the blink of an eye. “And with mobile, now you can take pictures of an invoice, expense report or receipt, file it from a phone, and it’ll already have a general ledger coding when it hits the office and goes to an [accounts payable] clerk.”

That’s not to say all retailers have caught up to the advances. “In this industry, you can still walk into offices where filing cabinets are used as office dividers,” Mathes said. “The store has so much paper delivered, either with mailing or pickups, large envelopes of paper. … You see it all the time.”

Variety of Advances

Despite pockets of the Stone Age, advances across retailing provide the opportunity to create efficiencies, improve operations and delight the customer.

Some are hidden from the eye, relegated to the inner workings of high-speed computers or even individual smartphones. Others are more tangible, in the form of devices to hook up and plug in or as products to shelve and face.

Some can be grouped into categories, while others fall into general themes. Here are a few of those groupings:

▶ Product improvement or innovation: E-cigs make up much of the technology innovation in terms of actual product, but foodservice equipment can make the cooking and heating process faster and more consistent, affecting products such as sandwiches and coffee.

▶ Store efficiency and operational improvement: Devices that can monitor food safety or alert staff when a cooler door is open can result in cost savings and improved safety.

▶ Marketing, customer communications: Video displays, food kiosks and fuel dispenser TVs can act in multiple capacities, enticing a sale and also starting a transaction.

▶ Data flow: Including card swipes, back-office software, home-office accounting and big data number crunching, the transmission of data from the store to corporate and back makes for a vast segment of today’s retail automation.

Of course, most devices achieve their optimal use when the information they contain is pooled and assessed. Using software from Arlington, Texas-based The Pinnacle Corp., Jenny Bullard, CIO of Flash Foods, Waycross, Ga., says in one instance, alerts tied to point-of-sale (POS) transactions notified staff of potentially fraudulent sales, and via its video surveillance tapes, staff members were able to provide footage of a pickup truck equipped with a compartment made to store stolen gasoline.

CONTINUED: Culling Data

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