Tech Connections Evolving

Network hookups, data delivery draw discussion at NACS technology, standards conference

Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

DALLAS -- Beneath the hoopla of smartphone apps, "Big Data" and mobile payments lies an ever-evolving world of cables, routers and interfaces, all designed to communicate information, be it tank-gauge levels or when a Nancy Smith earns a free cup of coffee.

Attendees at last week's NACS's The Tech Event spoke of how the industry as a whole is becoming more and more data driven. From day one, Pat Lewis, president and CEO of Kickback Rewards Systems, Twin Falls, Idaho, and operator of a 12-store chain, said loyalty solutions have always been about customer insight.

"The days of mass marketing are dead," the partner of Oasis Stop 'N Go told CSP Daily News. "The trick is not to just to reward someone, but to use that new-found consumer intelligence to inform the relationship."

[image[Yet beneath this transformation to data-driven analysis is the network, the circulatory systems that keep the bits and bytes flowing. That's a world in continual flux, not just on the consumer end but on the operational side as well.

Operational networks are quickly evolving, said Dirk Heinen, CEO of Acumera Inc., Austin, Texas. The supplier of an in-store network management device that links store automation pieces together said the major oil companies are releasing many of their network restrictions, allowing retailers with multiple brands to start standardizing equipment across their chains.

Specifically speaking about Houston-based Shell, Heinen said the oil company previously restricted its branded marketers to two networking choices, until recently. Their decision to pull back and allow third-party integration on site allowed Acumera to partner with Fremont, Calif.-based Vintners Distributors Inc., a chain of 200 stores. It gave Vintners the opportunity to standardize its equipment across its multi-branded network.

For Germantown, Md.-based Hughes Network Services, the Shell decision was a setback in that they were one of the oil company's preferred options, but it's coming to the industry with an aggressive array of products--using internally developed technology to bring high-speed, quality, data transmission to retailers at an affordable price.

Timothy Tang, director of vertical solutions for Hughes, said the company has developed a technique called "active compression," which is the ability to squeeze more bits of data into the available broadband capacity. Along with that innovation was another advancement in "bonding" or pulling multiple circuits together to create a "larger trunk." The idea is to forgo more expensive "T-1" communications lines in favor of lower-cost broadband DSL (digital subscriber line) and use Hughes' innovations to "give the customer more capacity at a lower price point."

Using the example of voice-over Internet protocol (IP), Tang said his company could provide VOIP without going to more expensive T-1 solutions and still have quality sound.

Innovation in data transfer was the topic of discussion at other supplier booths as well. Tim Lindblom, vice president, GulfCoast Loss Prevention, Clearwater, Fla., said new techniques in data transfer are streamlining data management, allowing for the use of video images, for instance, to go beyond store security and into the realm of data mining and behavioral analysis.

For the most part, data mining has been an issue of brining all store data back to a central hub, typically corporate servers or a third-party host. His model works differently. With GulfCoast, computers placed at the store configure data for more streamlined transmission on site. Then a central hub will request only specific pieces of data. The model, he said, allows for quicker, less burdensome access to only the required data elements needed for any particular report.

What convenience retailers ultimately want is, oddly enough, convenience, said Bill McCollough, executive director of petroleum for Heartland Payment Systems, Princeton, N.J. His company provides payment processing and managed network systems, having released a new network product tied to refrigeration monitoring.

"[Retailers] want to push the 'easy' button," McCollough said. "They want to drive cost out of the business, avoid security exposure, but don't want to spend the capital."

As solutions become more accessible to the industry, he said value lies not in the automation process or going paperless, it's in "having information that's reliable, accurate and always available when you need it."

NACS combined its NACStech gathering with the Petroleum Convenience Alliance for Technology Standards (PCATS) meeting this year, holding the weeklong conference from May 6-10. About 1,000 retailers, suppliers and technology observers attended.

Angel Abcede, CSP/Winsight By Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP
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