Changing Tech Attitudes in the Convenience Store
Today’s convenience store market is one that’s evolving quickly and looks very different to just a few years ago. More and more stores are elevating themselves and their product lines from the traditional Gas-N-Sip to a more comprehensive offering that adds value to customers and revenue to the bottom line. The main challenge in fulfilling this move lies in the technology used to both drive and support this new, more demanding business model.
As the market expands and more stores are added to networks at an accelerating rate, IT can be seen as a bottleneck because it can’t support the levels of scalability and capability needed. In fact, according to recent research conducted on behalf of Zynstra, 97 percent of retailers see retail branch IT as a strategic asset, while only 47 percent actually have the infrastructure to support this vision.
The new-generation store needs an IT infrastructure that enables it to deliver the customer experience that's expected — every time a customer enters. Store operations teams need back-office systems that work fast all the time. The business needs security and regulatory compliance, and the ability to handle audits (e.g., PCI-DSS) without disruption to the business. And all of this while keeping costs low.
Historically, this type of IT infrastructure has been difficult to deploy and manage cost effectively, especially for organizations with a large store estate and limited local IT expertise. Most approaches use a combination of vendor appliances for point of sale and security, often running on a range of PC or rack hardware, with limited resilience and reliability — and with a lot of manual processes to roll out, update and keep running. Space, power, noise and other environmental considerations in-store only increase the challenge.
One of the solutions is cloud, placing key systems and servers in a data center environment. While this solves a lot of management, security and consistency issues, it's almost always the wrong option for the store. Store applications, from kitchen ordering to POS, have to run in real time — and network connectivity and reliability can’t be guaranteed.
Remote stores need to have local, consistent capability to manage the technology in an efficient and automated way. A typical, next-generation convenience store features a number of different applications, from POS and digital signage to CCTV and kitchen management.
Ideally, what’s needed is a fit-for-purpose, virtualized server per store that's cloud-managed, highly available and can run all of these applications — one that avoids the costly IT black hole of multiple point solutions, all with separate challenges and separate management systems.
A store isn't a data center, and data center solutions aren't the answer. Everything from space, power and noise, through speed to deploy, security compliance, network resilience, and centralized management have different characteristics to those found in regular office or data center environments. A store estate is more like having a data center that’s been distributed. Each server is shrunk down and put in a difficult physical environment, behind a lower-performing access network, while maintaining the need for availability, performance, reliability and security.
This means they need to be centrally managed with distributed installation, commissioning and keeping current functionality to provide a very low support overhead, and facilitate the cost-effective and rapid deployment of hundreds or thousands of standardized remote sites. With the c-store market currently expanding, this is the ideal route for rapid deployment across new sites.
There's little doubt that the convenience store market has changed dramatically. However, it's also clear that this rate of change requires a fresh look at the technology needed to support it. In order to better meet customer demand, improve revenue and meet growth targets, IT managers have to take inventory of what they need in terms of technology to streamline this evolution.
Nick East is the CEO Zynstra, a company that offers hybrid IT solutions as a service.