Wet-stock management used to be a fairly simple activity. At the end of the week it would involve measuring the change in stock levels compared with seven days earlier and trying to reconcile that with the deliveries in and the sales-out over the same period. Margins could be calculated, but as they were historic by this stage there was nothing you could do to affect the outcome if they were not what you expected.
Stock levels might also be slightly lower than expected because a fractional amount was lost as vapour, but if the discrepancy was too large that meant a leak. Unfortunately this too was historic data meaning the leak could be anything up to a week old and would involve a loss of expensive fuel as well as the upheaval and cost of putting it all right.
Advances in communication technology and computers mean the latest systems can still do all this for you, albeit with much greater accuracy and in "real time", says Vianet sales director Phil Prow, but in addition they can also do so much more to help on the commercial side of the business. And with these systems becoming available through tablets and smart phones, decision makers are freed from their desks. They can monitor performance and take management action while out and about in their businesses.
All the main players in the UK market, such as Gilbarco Veeder Root, Vianet and Fairbanks provide ’real-time’ data.
Prow explains that real-time is a slight misnomer because it does not mean a system gives the user a read-out of precisely what the figures are at the same instant they press the button. Instead the systems are taking many readings, for instance every few seconds, and the system will collate these readings and update its records at an agreed interval such as every hour. In addition to recording the stock levels every few seconds and even during transactions, Vianet’s Clearview also tracks temperature data because, says Prow, temperature is the biggest cause of variance. With so much data being produced it then requires a computer to analyse it, make sense of it and identify trends, but Prow says: "What that means is you can identify leaks or losses much more quickly and much more accurately than you ever could before.
"But in addition to just doing leak detection and a bit of loss analysis, you can use all that data to do a lot of other things involved in the day-to-day running of a petrol station. Because we are partnering BigOil we know what the cost of that fuel is so we can start tracking the margin on a real-time basis. We can do order management so site staff don’t have to do it." He says this is ideal for dealers with several sites or a network.
"Some site staff are great at ordering but it can mean you end up carrying too much stock, which costs you money, or not enough and running out and losing sales, or not having enough space in the tanks and getting charged for haul backs from the supplier." Having visibility of when supplies are needed and recommendations of how much is required makes ordering simple for head offices and means it can even be done from a smartphone or iPad.
Delivery invoice reconciliation is another area Clearview can handle. "There are a lot of problems with deliveries, says Prow. "For instance, the retailer orders 10,000 litres but only gets 9,900. They have paid for 10,000 so they want to reconcile that or they want to check they have paid the right price for it." They can enter the data and price they agreed to pay for 10,000 litres and the system will work this out. With BigOil’s access to Platt’s data, the system can also work out what they should have paid, and check it against what was actually paid."
Customers of Fairbanks are also after new ways to use the data that is collected. Gareth Jenkins, business account manager, says: "We are seeing a real increase in operators who require bespoke alert packages. Many are requesting a number of alerts to be automatically forwarded to them across multiple media for example if a tank is nearing empty, or a night-time loss occurs. Whatever their concern, with the power of real-time data, we can set parameters tailored to them and ensure that dealers get their information, before it’s too late.
"This has a huge and positive knock-on effect to their bottom line. Tank and pump up-time is increased, ensuring their forecourt is viewed as a reliable place to fill up, pumps stay in use and any serious alerts are investigated and concluded before reaching a point of excessive loss. It all equates to greater profits at the end of the year."
He adds: "Customers such as Euro Garages and Applegreen needed even more from their data, wanting to be ahead of the competition with regards to fuel pricing a time-consuming conundrum that dealers face every day. For these independent fuel retailing giants, the answer has been Fairbanks’ partnership with IIS. By mobilising the power of Fairbanks’ real-time data through the IIS fuel pricing optimisation tool we are helping these companies to make the highest margins possible, giving them visibility to change their prices as required based on the most trustworthy statistical information possible. This method of fuel pricing is not for everyone however, so for those who like to keep their fuel pricing decisions firmly in house we are pleased to announce that Fairbanks is developing a streamlined fuel pricing tool which will be available to our customers in the near future."
Rick Bardsley, product manager environmental systems, Gilbarco Veeder-Root, says its Insite360 system provides a real-time, 360° view of wet stock, through a simple-to-use remote monitoring service that can be accessed via desktop, mobile phone or tablet. He adds: "By having access to wet-stock data from any remote location, retailers can make real-time business decisions, for example purchasing based on tank levels and fuel market price. For those with multiple sites, a managed service can be especially useful. The value of a managed service includes wet-stock monitoring consultants who review site data, identify loss, liaise with regulatory authorities, provide incident management and ensure regulatory compliance.
"The latest Automatic Tank Gauges (ATGs) are also being developed with timely and simple access to information in mind. Gilbarco Veeder-Root’s new TLS4 Series offers powerful, accessible and flexible wet-stock control by enabling full visibility on fuel movements in real time, both on-site and from any location. By combining inventory management and leak-detection assets with monitoring services into a powerful management system, fuel retailers gain advantage from ease of use and accessibility, and get the most from their investment."
Prow says that, as yet, few users appear to be using systems via their mobiles or tablets, but he is confident that as the generation that grew up with mobile technology work their way up through the management, more and more will. He concludes: "Wet-stock management requirements have changed. It’s much more of a useful commercial operational tool rather than just telling dealers if they have any leaks."
Eddie Bright, director, Brobot:
"We’ve been a customer of Vianet since they were formed when it was originally called Edensure, and we utilise their fuel monitoring service.
"We were introduced to the benefits of fuel monitoring by Fairbanks some 12-13 years ago and used their service for a while before switching to Edensure.
"The benefit to our business is the environmental protection it offers, by alerting us to the possibility of fuel seepage undetectable under normal reconciliation that falls under the permitted allowance radar.
"That is the key benefit, but the spin-offs from this are whether we have possible meter drift, filter blocking as dispensers run slow and actual delivery shortages after temperature has been accounted for, and which sites would benefit from ATC installations."
The system proved its value when intruders broke into the company’s site at Calverton, in Nottinghamshire. An alarm was triggered and when police arrived they caught the thieves in the act after they had extracted about 10,000 litres of diesel.
He says: "It was the sudden loss alarm that activated our site alarm system and led to the recovery of the fuel. This has worked on a couple of occasions saving us a fortune in lost product, mess and inconvenience to customers and staff, and making it well worth the investment.
"We only use the monitoring service at the moment, but I know Vianet’s Phil Prow will be pushing his other services, some of which I may have an interest in, such as the fuel ordering system."
Tony Head, director, Highway Stops Retail:
"We worked with Fairbanks during the entire period when we built Motor Fuels Group up to operating 70 sites, and after we sold that two-and-a-half years ago we started again with Highway Stops Retail and are up to eight sites and we are still working with them.
"We review all our sites on a daily basis. It’s a great tool to know exactly what products we’ve got in which tank on what site in real time, and that enables us to plan tankers for the week depending on Platts prices etc that we buy the fuel in at.
"It makes our life easy in the stuff that is crucial to the business managing fuel stocks coming in, and at what price, and also wet-stock control.
"The biggest benefit is that on a daily basis we get an email with various reports that gives us exactly what we need. The good thing is sometimes these types of report can be too fiddly and go into too much detail, but Fairbanks just give us exactly what we need about stock holding, stock control and it enables us to make the right decisions about increasing stocks or reducing stocks on a day-to-day basis.
Fairbanks come to us and say ’this is what we can do, what do you want’, and we simplify it down to what affects our business. It focuses on what is important to us.
"In addition it’s got the facility to look at each individual tank online at any time, and that gives us the reassurance that were there to be a leak we could act quickly. They provide a facility 24 hours a day where they can raise an alarm if levels suddenly start to drop through a leak or theft.
"We’ve grown Highway Stops from zero and Fairbanks provides the framework to allow us to add sites very quickly into the system. Over the years Fairbanks has grown its facilities and services and it has all been very positive."