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Giant names in the convenience store sector such as Shell, BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil have considerable resources and personnel to both deploy new programs and manage them seamlessly. But how is a small convenience store owner able to carve out a sustainable and profitable position in such a competitive marketplace?
Adopting new technology for compliance, automation, virtualization and brand differentiation is the answer.
Below are the most important questions and answers to consider when meeting this challenge.
AM I COMPLIANT?
You needed to be compliant with the payments card industry (PCI) DSS 3.0 regulations as of Jan. 1 (although some changes continue to be "best practices" until June 1). Understandably, managing security and payment compliance for multi-store enterprises can feel like an expensive, daunting task.
Addressing PCI compliance in-house requires hiring a security auditor, completing manual questionnaires, scanning each network, taking remediation actions and potentially hiring multiple security vendors. Challenges of meeting PCI compliance are many, including securing costly components from several different vendors; defining all network segment interfaces where payment data is intermingled; spending thousands per location using self-assembly options; and the necessity to use high-priced consultants due to a general lack of security expertise.
These challenges can be easily overcome by seeking out a scalable solution that eliminates most of the expenses related to integration and management. When comparing PCI compliance options, make sure the solution:
- Meets regulatory standards;
- Simplifies management through a standardized solution across all stores;
- Reduces risk through an obsolescence protection program;
- Eliminates costs of data centers, servers and specialized security personnel;
- Narrows PCI cardholder data environment (CDE) scope;
- Offers simple installation and ongoing management.
ARE MY PROCESSES SEAMLESS & AUTOMATED?
They need to be! Improved efficiencies are a critical element of improving margins. Enabling services that monitor and manage fuel inventories, power usage, cooling systems temperature control and store systems can drive considerable cost savings. Many of these services are cloud-based and require secure methods of enablement.
Recent news has highlighted tank monitoring systems being hacked, so securing connectivity to these systems is critical. Breaches often start by one vulnerability being exploited, but ultimately propagate to the point-of-sale (POS) system, such as in the Target breach. Utilizing public IP addressing and opening firewall holes to enable remote access is a proven path for intruders to make headlines. Do not fall prey to convenience at the expense of security.
WHAT IS VIRTUALIZATION & IS IT IMPORTANT?
The realities of the c-store environment are that there is limited space to house information technology and networking equipment, and there are few if any technical resources located at the stores. Adopting networking solutions that enable virtualization can reduce the footprint required to activate the services mentioned above, reduce points of failure, simplify technical operations and improve overall security.
Virtualization implies that a single platform or server can create multiple logical instances of routers or servers on a single device vs. having dedicated physical devices for each application. Virtualization yields efficiency, cost savings and stronger security because each application is separated from all others, thus eliminating breach propagation opportunities. Virtualization is the key to eliminating complexity and its associated cost, risk and consumption of limited space.
SHOULD I OFFER A MOBILE PAYMENT OPTION?
Yes! Customers have adopted innovative payment technologies on their smartphones and frequently favor establishments that cater to their preference of payment method. Many connected customers see mobile payment as being more convenient, especially when it comes to pumping gas.
Adopting a mobile payment platform does require some work, but there are multiple digital wallet cloud providers with smartphone apps that make it easier to adopt and implement.
The biggest consideration is how the selected digital-wallet provider is connected to a c-store’s network to allow cloud-based payment requests to be authorized locally in a store. This is a required element to be able to authorize the transaction and activate the pump. An additional consideration is the integration of a chosen loyalty program into the phone app so that customers receive an incentive to come in and purchase products from the store.
SHOULD I HAVE A LOYALTY PROGRAM?
You’d better! Attracting customers is one part merchandising and one part rewarding loyal business. Loyalty fosters differentiation in a customer’s mind because your business is associated with added benefits of repeated patronage. The largest brands have deployed robust loyalty programs and continue to advance these programs, so they are clearly seeing benefits from their investment.
Adopting a loyalty program does not have to be cost-prohibitive. Affordable options abound from a multitude of program providers, program types and enablement methods. C-store owners must decide if a transactional or proximity-based program will be utilized, but either program type must be consistent across all c-store locations.
HOW CAN I BETTER UNDERSTAND MY PRODUCT SALES?
Take the time to know what sells and what doesn’t. Increasing your understanding about the products a store carries, along with having actual data to guide product merchandising decisions, is critical to improving sales and margins.
Limited shelf real estate must be allocated to products that are in demand. Many customers visit stores based solely on that store carrying a product they prefer. Adopting a retail analytics system helps gain better visibility into what products are moving and when to reorder so that items are always available.
A key consideration is selecting a manageable system that can securely integrate with a current POS system. Selecting a cloud-based system is the most cost effective and simple approach, but there must be a secure way of integrating the cloud service. An additional consideration is selecting an analytics provider that can provide intelligence on non-carried products so that the products finding success in competitors’ stores can be ordered.
Many c-store owners fear that adding necessary technology can bring complexity, cost and risk that may not justify the investment. This is simply not true. Rather, c-store owners should fear the business cost of inaction while the competition continues to move forward.
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.