Epos and back office technology is advancing fast. In the never-ending bid to make life easier for retailers, suppliers are constantly developing kit to make transactions quicker, more accurate, and give operators greater control of their businesses.
And as forecourt retailers continue to embrace convenience retailing, suppliers are under increasing pressure to come up with petrol systems that are right for the c-store environment.
“There are things on c-stores such as deals and promotions that haven’t traditionally been available in petrol stations,” says Spar’s IT controller Roy Ford. “Petrol retailers don’t want two different systems – they want petrol systems that are right for c-stores. It is all about bringing traditional c-store systems into a petrol station so that it encompasses everything from stock management to category management.
“And as we see more off licences moving into forecourts, functions such as age verification prompts are invaluable. Only by having a system that asks staff to check age can you show due diligence that you asked the question.”
Spar has a hybrid retail solution for forecourts that comprises its own back office system developed over 11 years and HTEC’s HydraPOS or Arciris Iridium point of sale.
“The system has to be compatible with Spar’s head office and distribution,” says Ford. “We maintain the epos files so, for example, retailers don’t need to key in new prices every time there is an increase – it’s all done electronically. The systems are matched to the individual retailers’ requirements, whether it be links to the tank gauges, car wash, or external payment terminals.”
The two most popular systems for forecourts are HTEC’s HydraPOS and Arciris’s Iridium pos with Prism back office. There are currently more than 1,000 forecourts using Iridium, and the company is also in the middle of a rollout to supply 55 Q8 sites with Iridium and Prism, and 118 Total sites with a mixture of Prism only or Prism linked to Iridium.
“It has been an important strategy of Arciris to provide seamless solutions to the forecourt retailer,” says Billy Tank, sales & marketing director at Arciris. “With epos at the centre of forecourt activity, Arciris wraps a number of services around this key function. Firstly, Prism is our own back office system – not a third party – allowing seamless interaction with the pos.
“Prism takes epos information and provides all the management data required for forecourt retailing with facilities for managing bunkering to supplier ordering, with interfaces to all the major symbol groups in the UK.
“To complement this, Prism interfaces to the UK’s leading accounting packages, Sage Line 50, and thereafter provides a consultancy service that will produce management accounts with monthly site visits.”
Following Arciris’s recent acquisition of Mercury Petroleum Systems, the company can also take data from the epos and back office to provide in-depth wet stock analysis via regular reports or by accessing the website. And another recent development brings integration to weighing scales and CCTV. The company also provides epos on a stand-alone basis, linked to a back office on site or at another location. This ensures the offering meets all sectors of the market as well as offering an upgrade path should a stand-alone system need to include a back office at a later date.
Meanwhile, the latest system from HTEC is the NoQ point of sale, launched in July this year. There are currently 12 installed in forecourts around the country, and the touch-screen system is designed to be most suitable for the dealer operator because it can be modified to suit the needs of individual sites.
“The button layout is designed to reflect the way dealers operate, says HTEC’s head of forecourt automation for the dealer market, Andrew Watson.
“It links to the pumps through a simple touch of a button, switching into a super-slick shop operation with ease.
“If the site is a car wash orientated filling station, you can include valet as one of the main buttons on the menu. Or if the site is more into fast food, instead of valet, it would make more sense to have a bakery button. The retailer tells us what their business is about and we develop a screen to suit.”
Watson adds: “The till operator is able to control the pumps and serve a shop customer at the same time because half the screen is the pump controller, while the other half follows the current transaction.”
VBi, which acquired Meggitt Petroleum Systems in May this year, is poised to launch SmartPOS – a pos system that uses touch screen and printer technologies to succeed Meggitt’s Micrelec 9500.
SmartPOS is currently being trialled by a major convenience store group. “We are leaving out the wetstock side at the moment to trial the system,” says director of VBi Simon Hollingsworth. “It will then move to the chain’s forecourt outlets, and will be officially launched to the whole market at the beginning of November.
“SmartPOS will become our key product for point of sale. It’s a simpler operating system based on Windows, and has a touch screen, whereas Micrelec was keyboard operated. Chip and pin is also a key feature.”
The SmartPOS system links to most third-party EFT terminals so retailers are able to offer other services such as mobile phone top-ups. And it also comes with a basic back office package built in. But Hollingsworth says forecourts with a c-store would need a more comprehensive back office system. With this in mind, the company’s Forecourt Facts back office software is being relaunched in November with new features.
“It will be a Windows-based system so we can customise it to meet the retailer’s needs,” explains Hollingsworth. “We also have the capability for oil companies to monitor performance of franchise sites. Each individual site has a back office but we can extract data so the oil company can see how its whole estate is performing.”
Key features of SmartPOS include split screen display to show complete forecourt status, full transaction logging database with roll-back recovery, and chip and pin capability. It offers an interface to fuel dispensers, third-party back office systems, scanners and scales, tank gauges, environmental alarms and price signs. And in conjunction with Forecourt Facts, it incorporates supplier links for electronic ordering.
Other reputable epos systems for forecourts include Tokheim FuelPOS and Fujitsu FuelSTORE, which are distributed in the UK by Retail Petroleum Solutions, which has recently completed a large project for one of the majors involving upgrading epos and back office systems on almost 600 company-owned sites.
“The Tokheim FuelPOS uses a ‘quiet’ display which has been proven to relieve eyestrain,” says RPS sales & marketing manager Huw Carey. “This, coupled with the large touch-screen flat-panel monitor, provides an easy-to-use cashier interface. And if a back office computer is required, the FuelPOS will connect to several third-party systems including PosiTiv CMT, Soft Options, FMS, and Stationmaster.”
FuelPOS also has a connection to the Big Brother camera system to take forecourt security to a new level.
The system connects to modern tank gauges, and by reading only the height details from a gauge FuelPOS provides full tank calibration, low-level alarms, leak detection, delivery reports, full wetstock reconciliation.
Michael Exelby, managing director of the Exelby Services Group in Carlisle, bought his first Tokheim FuelPOS in 1999 for Golden Fleece Filling Station on the M6 near Carlisle.
“This is one of the busiest bunkering and retail sites in the country, handling over 45 million litres per annum, and on busy days volumes can exceed 200,000 litres,” says Michael. “We had a three-pos system installed, so that in the event of one unit failing, we would still be pumping fuel – we cannot afford to be out of action with such large throughputs.
“The original hardware is still in place, although there have been some upgrades to the software, but we have had very few problems. We have now upgraded two other sites to the system, with a fourth on the way.
“We have also linked the Big Brother digital CCTV system in with FuelPOS at the Carlisle site,” adds Michael. “When a customer selects a pump nozzle, the camera that oversees that area will zoom in on the customer, taking a digital image and then does the same with the customer’s vehicle. When the customer comes in to pay, the cashier recalls the pump used and the touch screen will show the image recorded of the customer removing the pump nozzle, so that the two views can be matched.
“Each set of images from each transaction are also stored together on hard disk, so that they can be recalled any time later, searching either by pump, date and time, or FuelPOS transaction number. This is a valuable tool in the fight against drive-offs because we can provide the police with very good evidence.”
It has been relatively difficult for group operators to maintain control of their sites, but suppliers are now introducing back office applications that allow the forecourt owner to oversee managers from head office.
There are over 90 installations of Arciris’s head office solution, Prism Plus, and independent groups such as Loggins, Shaw petroleum, Park Garage Group and Inner Space have all benefited from the software.
HTEC has also come up with internet-based virtual back office software for retailers operating multiple sites. “Information is automatically sent to a web server which we operate,” says HTEC’s Andrew Watson. “The forecourt owner can sit in head office and tune into his own website and see what all of his sites are doing. It makes office organisation more efficient and the owner can place all orders himself.
“For example, for a group with 16 sites, one person can do one job for all sites. It gives the operator greater central control, enabling him to run the business more efficiently, and save on staff costs.”
HTEC is currently trialing the system with Jesroe Services in Northern Ireland. The Belfast retailer is using the software on his three sites. Provision of all hardware and installation for HydraPOS on all three sites plus virtual back office has been a £45,000 investment, but the manager says the extra flexibility and security the system brings to the business is worth every penny.
“With virtual back office I can see what’s happening on each of my sites. It’s very user friendly and gives me much more security,” says the manager of Jesroe Services. “The car wash codax and Epay is embedded into the till and gives me much more control because I can see exactly what is being sold and when it’s being sold. And if I’m at one station scanning in a delivery or putting on new promotions, I can do it remotely for all three sites. I can access all reports and view everything through the PC wherever I am.
“And when you invest in a new computer system, future upgrades means buying new software, but with virtual back office it’s easy to upgrade because it’s on the internet. You might have to replace the hardware in the future but the software is easily maintained and upgraded.
“From an accounting point of view I can dial in and download files and transfer them back into the SAGE package,” he adds. “All credit card transactions are done on ISDN so they are authorised in seconds.
“And if anything goes wrong at any site, the live data is held in three locations so I can still access up-to-date trade information. Every 20 seconds data is sent down the line so it constantly updates the server.”
CHIP AND PIN
The long awaited emergence of chip and pin means every retailer in the UK will need to provide an online terminal capable of accepting the new smartcards. There’s no getting away from it because if you accept credit cards by any other means than an approved terminal after January 1, 2005, you will be liable for any transaction made with a problem card.
“New electronic payment regulations mean that you’ll have to replace your pos system within 18 months,” says a spokesman for Gilbarco Veeder-Root, who launched its own epos system – PassPort Europe – earlier this year. “We created PassPort to meet the demands of the new regulations and enhance the way in which retailers run their businesses.”
As the emergence of chip and pin begins to make pay at pump a more viable option for retailers, some epos suppliers are working with pump manufacturers to build card readers into their pumps. For example, HTEC has been working with Gilbarco Veeder-Root to build an in-pump card reader into the Euroline pump system.
“Now chip and pin is sorted, pay at pump is becoming a real option,” says Andrew Watson. “We have about 20 forecourts where terminals are chip and pin compliant. Retailers were not buying outdoor payment terminals until they knew that chip and pin worked.”
“We can load chip and pin software into existing pumps remotely so there’s no need for physical hardware modifications. NoQ can control it and all the retailer would need to do is buy the Sirius in-pump terminal.”
An epos system breakdown spells a massive headache for the retailer. Not only will you be unable to make transactions, but you will also have lost control of the pumps, so it’s worth checking what support your supplier offers before parting with any money.
Because, according to VBi’s Simon Hollingsworth, around 80 per cent of queries can be resolved remotely, many suppliers are now offering remote servicing. “The first line of call will see if we can get the retailer up and running remotely,” explains Hollingsworth. “The way things have evolved with ISDN lines etc, means remote servicing is much easier now.”
HTEC also offers remote servicing. “Reliability is key in any epos system,” says Watson. “Those forecourts with more than one till can continue trading within a few minutes if there is a problem. Because PCs operate on a local area network (LAN), just one bit of hardware on that LAN connects to the forecourt and gives the retailer control of the pumps. If that connection goes down, the retailer will have lost control of the forecourt.
“By switching the USB connection to another till, the system can be up again in the time it takes to call the helpdesk. We offer a 6am to 11pm service, and it’s a lot cheaper than an on-site service agreement, which, at best, can offer a four-hour response time.”