Have you checked your epos data recently? According to research company Him, independent retailers only review the data they get from their epos systems an average of 4.5 times a month. The figure comes from its latest Cash and Carry Retailer Tracking Programme, which carries out interviews with retailers while they are shopping in depots.

However Huw Carey, Torex’s product manager for petroleum convenience, believes this is nowhere near often enough, and recommends managers check their epos data at the end of each day, ideally when they do their daily reconciliation.

Carey explains: "With the current economic downturn and warnings of a recession, retailers need to squeeze every drop of profit from sales that they can. This is where epos comes in - it can tell you what your best-selling and top-profit items are, as well as making sure you’re not overstocked in one area or about to run out in another. There’s no point in having high-cost, low-margin items on the shelves that don’t sell. As a retailer, you might think you can’t afford to get epos. But I would say, can you afford not to get it?"

Meanwhile the latest Datamonitor statistics show that 64% of customers visiting forecourt sites with a shop make a non-fuel purchase, and on average a customer spends £3.31 on non-fuel products. In addition, Him research shows that 24% of failed purchases are caused by poor availability.

Torex’s Lucas-Pos is designed specifically for the forecourt industry, and Carey reckons that retailers should not be put off about the price of epos equipment. He says there is often help available with costs, such as selling data to other companies or off-setting a percentage of a loan for epos equipment against tax.

In addition to affordability, any epos system must be easy to use.

Carey says: "Forecourts tend to have a high turnover of staff - the nature of the business means they often take extra people on during the holidays and at peak times, so the epos at their site needs to be simple and straightforward to use with features such as a good display. It also needs to have links to suppliers to make it more stock efficient - this can include electronic ordering and links to suppliers so they know if you need more product, etc."

Billy Tank, managing director of Indigo Retail, says flexibility is key: "There are few epos providers in the forecourt retailing market that have a fully integrated epos and back- office solution. Fewer still with links to accounting systems. While many epos companies boast of linking to third-party back-office systems, retailers never manage to overcome the issues of dealing with two suppliers for their in-store management. Indigo Retail considers this a fundamental point, particularly where a system can deal with any oil company and any shop stock supplier, and in most cases Indigo Retail can."

Tank adds that one of the key benefits is that all of the company’s customer service is delivered via broadband, "saving retailers time and money and allowing swift access to the system for call resolution".

One of the latest areas where Torex has been working is in age verification for products such as cigarettes and alcohol. Carey explains: "When the item is scanned in, the epos realises it’s an age-related product, so it flashes an alert up on screen to let the staff member know that they need to check if the customer looks 18 or 21. The system then asks the employee if they’ve asked the customer their age and if they’re happy with the answer then the sale goes through, and if not then they ask to see ID."

Another area is cigarette vending, which Torex has been working on in Ireland in recent years. When the customer asks for a certain brand of cigarette or tobacco product, the cashier keys this in and the packet is dispatched from an unmarked vending machine behind the till. Carey says the system is a more secure way of selling tobacco than having to hide it under the counter - where staff have to take their eye off the store to find the appropriate product. Torex is expecting to be ready to introduce the technology in the UK next year if necessary, depending on what happens with the current government deliberations over the future of tobacco displays in stores in the UK.

Over on the forecourt side of the business, wet-stock management is an important issue for retailers. Carey says: "With margins on fuel so tight, it’s important to keep an eye on what’s in the tank and to check that pumps aren’t over-dispensing fuel."

Meanwhile, epos is also being used to combat drive-offs on the forecourt. The Torex system involves outdoor cameras on pumps which take a picture of the person and licence plate when the nozzle is removed from the pump.

HTEC is going one stage further with its latest pay-at-pump technology. Clive Steel, HTEC major accounts and service director, explains: "The customer at the pump has to select the pay-at-kiosk or pay-at-pump option before they lift the nozzle. If they select the kiosk the employee in the kiosk can say no if they are suspicious, and at that point the customer has to select pay-at-pump if they want to proceed. They then need to put their credit card in before they are allowed to get any fuel. It’s very good security."

Steel, who moved to HTEC six months ago after working at Malthurst for seven years, says the system has been installed at some Asda and Morrisons sites and is currently being rolled out to the dealer network. It is designed to accept all major credit cards as well as company fuel cards.

He adds: "Some people say the public are scared of technology and won’t use such systems, but Morrisons has come up with a very clever way of using it. They have put the pay-at-pump capability on the outer lanes, and made the inner lane ’kiosk only’ - which is in view of the kiosk itself."

Steel says the system should pay for itself on an average site within a year to 18 months.

He adds: "Studies show that concerns over reduction of spend in the store with pre-pay is on the whole unfounded and customers who do want to shop for essentials will still enter the store. Shorter queues allow staff to focus on retail sales and people in a hurry."

Pumps can also be set to trade out of hours in ’unmanned’ mode to enable fuel sales to be maximised without the extra labour costs involved in overnight or ’slow’ sales periods.

HTEC, which Steel says now provides solutions and products to over 3,500 UK petrol stations and almost 50% of the main UK supermarkets, has also been working on its own number plate recognition system.

According to Steel, the HydraANPR can be integrated into HTEC’s HydraPos epos solution, or can be used as a standalone alongside another manufacturer’s epos terminals. Images are recorded when a vehicle enters the forecourt and are logged against a drive-off and non-payment database. If a vehicle tries to fill up at a site, the system recognises it and stops the pump working. HTEC also uses number plate data from the police regarding drive-offs and Steel says this is a "huge deterrent" for anyone thinking of driving off without paying.

HTEC believes that its ANPR software is unique in the forecourt retail market, and when used in conjunction with HydraPOS it is the only system which can physically stop the pump dispensing fuel - with other systems sending an alert to the kiosk and the operator having to make a decision on what action to take.

Indigo Retail’s Tank says the Indigo Retail pos also has a module that records images based upon pre-set epos alarms identified by the retailer, and that some of these epos images were used recently by police as evidence in a violent crime incident.

Card security is another big issue in forecourts, and HTEC’s new security method involves the pin pad equipment itself. If the pad is tampered with or anyone has tried to access anything inside the pad - for example trying to undo a screw - the equipment will not accept a card and will automatically shut down. This is also connected to the epos or, as Steel describes it, there is a "PIN pad handshake with the epos" which will recognise if the pad has been tampered with. Steel says Total has been using HTEC’s PIN pads at its sites and will also be adopting the handshake method.

As well as security, customers are also looking for fast service and convenience. One company developing equipment in this area is NCR.

Roger Kirby, NCR’s account director, says: "Forecourt retailers are putting a greater focus on grocery sales in their stores as there is much opportunity for sales and profit. Around 93% of forecourt stores are now classed as convenience stores according to the Institute of Grocery Distribution. The key drivers in the market at the moment are the need for assisted and self-service point of sale technologies which help to ensure customers are served as quickly as possible.

"Point of sale systems also need the processing headroom to support increasingly sophisticated, memory-hungry business management and analysis software systems. We will see more self-service in the future. NCR self-checkout technology - which enables shoppers to scan, pack and pay for goods themselves - can be used to help customers complete their shopping quickly. Quick service makes the outlet an attractive shopping destination for the consumer and frees up the petrol pumps to attract more passing trade."

Kirby says the latest generation of NCR’s self-checkouts have "currency recycling technology", which cuts down on the amount of times they need to be refilled with cash. He adds that the technology also makes it easier to offer cashback at the self-checkouts as the units don’t need to be topped up with cash very often.

Shoppers can also use the NCR EasyPoint Xpress Order and Pay kiosk to order freshly made sandwiches, snacks and coffees.

Regarding the future, Kirby says the NCR RealPOS 80XRT technology has a lifespan which is around double that of a general purpose PC with a cashbox. It also allows new technologies to be added as they become more commonplace, such as fingerprint recognition for employee log-ins. In addition, he advises that retailers use printers which work quickly and minimise the number of till roll changes required, enabling the outlet to serve more customers. He says these factors led NCR to design its two-sided thermal printer which prints on both sides of the paper simultaneously and uses 45% less paper, helping reduce waste and cut costs. According to Kirby, Sainsbury’s recently won the European Retail Solutions Green IT Award 2008 for using these printers.


=== Case study: Mabco Petroleum ===

Mabco Petroleum’s Lancashire Hill Service Station in Stockport, Cheshire, has been running its business with a twin lane epos and back-of-office system from Indigo Retail for two years. Usman Patel, director of Mabco Petroleum, says he likes the system because he is able to access it remotely - and has even completed his day end reconciliations while on a visit to Saudi Arabia.

Usman, who has three Texaco forecourts in the Stockport and north Manchester area, says: "I’m so happy with the solution from Indigo Retail, primarily because it enables me to have full control over my business on a number of levels. Web-based access to Incontrol and Instore means I can manage every detail of the business operation wherever I am in the world.

"With fully integrated CCTV, not only can I see shop sale figures over the internet, I can also see what’s actually going on in the shop and the forecourt as it happens.

"This has proved to be very useful on a number of occasions. We rarely need to contact the Indigo Retail Helpdesk as we’ve been trained to fix simple problems ourselves."

Staff at the Londis store on the Lancashire Hill site say promotions are easy to set up and price changes quick to implement.


=== Case Study: Fuelpos ===

Tokheim is very proud of its Fuelpos system, which can be used to monitor Stage 2 Vapour Recovery on the forecourt.

According to Tokheim, it is a technological first for the market that means retailers don’t have to use bulky monitors or monitoring equipment.

In addition, Fuelpos runs in conjunction with the Crypto VGA - which Tokheim says is the newest and most secure payment terminal available.

The company says its features include:

* using secure FTP access to communicate with the back office computer while other systems use shared folders over LANs or anonymous FTP. This gives Fuelpos a significant security advantage.

* monitoring wetstock in real time and providing this information to the back office system at any time. This allows accurate wet-stock monitoring and predictive fuel ordering at any point during the day.

* providing daily sales and receipts in a summarised file format, allowing days to be processed in a much smaller amount of time than other purely transactional-based systems.

* having one of the most reliable remote modem-based polling methods. The compact nature of both the summary and transactional files allows them to be remotely retrieved from any Fuelpos, within a matter of a few minutes. This has particular benefits when looking to analyse sales, promotions or customer behaviour across several sites from one central location.

* the Fuelpos architecture ensures that if one till is down the others can continue to authorise the pumps.

* it has the highest level of pump (and other equipment) connectivity in the market, making it an ideal drop-in solution on older sites.

* currently Fuelpos is the only till that can link to Tokheim outdoor payment terminals.