Cash Management Hero

Smart safes save the day for Wawa

WEST CHESTER, Pa. -- We've been introduced to a lot of super heroes on the big screen in the summer of 2011: Captain America, Green Lantern, Thor and X-men. While entertaining, most would have difficulty applying super powers to battle the tyranny of labor inefficiencies, shrinkage and long queues. Convenience store chain Wawa, however, has come to rely on a metal-encased defender against labor inefficiencies.

"Smart safes are our unsung hero," said Anne Kerstetter, Wawa Inc. store operations cash manager. "I would struggle to comprehend life without those safes."

Residents in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia would struggle to think of life without Wawa's 570 stores, of which 259 offer gasoline. Since opening its first food market in 1964, Wawa has continued to grow, serving more than 400 million customers 195 million cups of coffee and 60 million made-to-order hoagies each year.

Its ingratiation into the fabric of the communities it serves has been the result of numerous innovations to forward both the customer and associate experience. That includes a vision 19 years ago, when Wawa identified the need to simplify how its stores opened every morning.

"We used to spend 60 to 90 minutes every morning preparing the deposit," said Kerstetter, who worked in Wawa operations prior to taking her current role. "Counting cash adds no value. Our safe program has made our labor so much more efficient."

The road to that progress began with a call to Ellenby Technologies. "Wawa had a pretty good idea what they wanted," said Bob Dobbins, CEO of Ellenby Technologies. "We were able to draw from our strengths in electronics and automated payment systems to help them realize their vision--the first entry into the smart safe market.

"Meeting their goals has been a collaborative effort. Delivering a product that would accomplish their needs required us to be flexible, incorporating the initial specifications and then reacting to necessary changes throughout several months of field trials. Even now, after years of iterations, we are still pursuing continuous improvement."

One of the big advancements over time has been the bill validator utilized in the safe. Ellenby's close relationship with MEI has led to the integration of several generations of technology. Wawa safes currently feature the MEI CASHFLOW SC bill validator. CASHFLOW SC was introduced in 2002 and recently passed more than one million units sold. Inherent in meeting that milestone was the establishment of new expectations for performance and reliability by minimizing note jams and the cost of maintenance while maximizing note acceptance and security against fraud.

Technology enhancements have allowed the program to grow with Wawa. The evolution from operating food stores to integrated convenience stores featuring gas stations dramatically changed the level of cash Wawa had to manage. But the core functionality remained consistent with the original vision. The investment yields a payback from improved labor efficiencies to prepare deposits and reduced queue times.

"Labor alone justified the investment," said Kerstetter. "We have saved 1-2 people on a day shift, depending on the store traffic. But there are many additional benefits that can't be quantified. We inherently realize there are shrink and customer service advantages. And it has simplified the lives of our associates – which is a core value.

"The constant reconciliation of cash hinders customer service. I just couldn't imagine a morning coffee rush without a smart safe."

Wawa has integrated its safes with the POS system. Cashiers begin each shift by logging on to the POS, which integrates the register activity to the back office computer. Cashiers are instructed to continuously drop money into the safe as they conduct transactions at the register. These rules of engagement ensure both a safe and efficient working environment for cashiers.

"Eliminating the act of physically counting, re-counting and triple-counting cash will save labor and give back time to associates to service customers," said Kerstetter. "Managers don't worry about cash once it's in the safe. And not worrying about cash allows them to manage the business."

Wawa evaluates the accuracy of safes on a regular basis. And it is constantly looking to improve the program--having changed accountability from the till to the lane, upgraded its safes and, most recently, integrated a new POS program. Applying cash management knowledge that is specific to Wawa into the safe program has led to continuous improvement.

"There is tremendous value in a customized solution," said Kerstetter. "In my opinion, it's the greatest piece of technology in the store."

Based on the success at Wawa, it's hard to imagine a smart safe solution flying under the radar of convenience stores. Then again, a cash management solution that includes smart safes definitely acts like a super hero in its ability to serve its public and fight crime.