Richard Inglis: Technology matters

Staying ahead of the hackers

Posted by: Richard Inglis Tue, 14 Aug 2018

If I had written this column a few weeks ago it would have been very different. We had what I believed to be a really robust set-up and I planned to tell you all about it. So what happened? Well, we were hacked.

One minute our epos system was working and then the next it was not! Turns out the hackers had encrypted all our files including the database (all our stock and sales information). Luckily for us they targeted only the server and left the tills unaffected. This meant we were able to trade, but not place orders, stock check, gap check etc.

After a few days we were back up and running again, but needless to say we have since increased security further. This is a complex subject where some areas will require IT experts, however there are things that you can do yourself, or at the very least request to be set-up.

Think of your PC set-up as an onion, layer after layer you should have different levels of security. You do not want a hard-boiled egg set-up where the shell (the router) is hard to get through but once they are in it’s all there to see. So here are my tips:

Make sure your router is set up correctly and locked down. For example, if you can remotely view CCTV, how was it set up? At a basic level you could restrict access to set IP addresses, or a far better set-up would be a VPN (virtual private network).

Free wi-fi in store? Make sure this is a guest/closed network, or people may have direct access to all your other devices.

Running Windows 10? Run your epos system from a standard user account, which should be locked down. Remove administrator as a username (again another layer) and set-up a hidden administrator user with a strong user name and password as a starting point. These credentials can then be used only for software upgrades etc.

Your epos should be running a daily back-up to a secure location. If you are attacked, you have a roll-back point.

Have good antivirus software which only a unique password can remove when logged in as your hidden administrator.

Imagine if your epos, tills and cards stopped working? How much would it cost you? Maybe it’s time to review your IT security. Tesco certainly has.

Maximise epos potential

Posted by: Richard Inglis Fri, 13 Jul 2018

If you run a c-store, chances are you will be operating an epos system. In basic terms they all really do the same thing; the question is, are you getting the most out of your current system?

I have visited many excellent retailers, but unfortunately epos and technology can be their weakness. To get the most out of your business, you need to master your epos system.

An epos system has several key functions:

  • Stock control – Current stock levels and the lowest level of stock you want to have on the shelf before the next delivery
  • Ordering – Create automatic orders based on sales which can be sent and received electronically
    Audit controls – Tell you when you have sold products, tracking purchases, refunds and stock-taking
  • Sales and VAT reporting – produce sales reports by your whole store or by department
  • Profits and margins – Hold the correct prices for your products and tell you how much profit you are making!

If you can master just the above functions then you have the key to unlocking the most out of your current epos system. Clever as all this is, it requires work to maintain and review. If you are struggling, please do ask for help from your supplier or wholesaler – they should be happy to help.

Have a walk around your shop and look at your stock. If you can see dust on top of some products, it’s not just a sign you need to clean. It’s most likely a dead line, stock that is taking up sales space and your money. If it’s not selling then reduce it and find something that will move. This is where your epos system is invaluable, as you can look at your sales by department to really drill down into what is really making you money or not.

Don’t be scared to make changes, you may be surprised at the results. In the past 18 months we have reduced our dry shelving by nearly 40%, cutting down ranges. The result? Our sales are up, stock holding down, more spacious stores and more cash in the bank. We even introduced Cook to our customers, something 18 months ago I would have told you we did not have the space for. Without epos we could not have made these changes.

Turn to tech to keep you running

Posted by: Richard Inglis Tue, 12 Jun 2018

I hope you are all enjoying the benefits of the better weather; I know that we have had a good few weeks. However, this good weather has a downside – we find that it results in freezer and chiller problems at some point. You name it, we have had it all: gas leaks, compressor failure, broken fans, faulty/blocked pumps, iced-up units, faulty solenoid valves, control boards… it’s a long list!

So what can you do to reduce the down time? This is where a good maintenance plan is a great start. Clean out your pumps every six months, it’s not that hard to do although admittedly it’s a messy job (I would suggest starting with the pump linked to your milk chiller first). Check your fans are running, clean the condenser units, removing all the dust, and defrost freezer units.

So how can ‘tech’ help me, I hear you asking. We use RDM units to monitor temperatures in all our chillers and freezers. In basic terms an electronic probe is fitted to all of our chillers and freezers which is linked to one simple control panel. This tracks temperatures and logs the result every few seconds. This data is stored and can be viewed over a few hours, days or weeks. Therefore, no more temperature check books for your staff. I can then view this data on my phone from anywhere. I even have it linked to my alarm system so if I have a fault the alarm company will call me direct. With this data I can review a unit’s performance over a few weeks or days to see the early signs of a problem.

The RDM is a very useful tool for us. We use it to control display lights, turning them off at night and on in the morning. We also have it set so that our drinks chillers turn off at night and back on in the morning, saving power and night-time noise. Different units are set to run at different temperatures so our fresh meat case is set at a much lower temperature than our produce case. We even have a gas leak probe fitted to our pack which tells us if we have a gas leak.

Never be afraid to ask your engineer a few questions next time they are on site. It could save you money and stop a problem before it gets out of control. You’ll still get break downs, but minimising the impact on sales is the key.

Choosing alarm systems

Posted by: Richard Inglis Wed, 16 May 2018

If you are reading this then you probably have a burglar alarm installed. But just how good is your system? Most of you probably think what’s the point of changing. Well, first off, what do you currently have installed?

  • Non-monitored system – makes a lot of noise but not much else.
  • Monitored system – the basic standard would be Redcare Classic, which will call the police if you are broken into. However, if your phone lines are cut (which happened to me a few years back) you are unprotected. Believe it or not, this is burglar rule number one; your phone cables are in the street and not that hard to cut.
  • DualCom system – uses both a Redcare line and GSM (mobile line), a simple but effective way of making your business safe. This means they can cut your phone line and your alarm will work fine.
  • Emizon System – this system uses your broadband and GSM back-up and is the one we use. It gives us the same protection of a DualCom system without the cost of an extra phone line.

If your system is more than 10 years old or is not a DualCom system, I would suggest the time has come to review and look at upgrading. For me the cost of a new system to a Grade 3 standard was under £2,500 (excluding vat), which also resulted in lower insurance costs. Top tip: if you do upgrade: you will require a ‘Certificate of Conformity’ as your insurance company will expect one.

This is all great but, as a bit of a control freak, I wanted more out of my alarm system. For example, how do you know if your alarm is set at night? Your staff lock up, but you have no way of telling if your alarm system is on or not. I wasn’t happy about not having any real control over the main protection for my business.

Our system is made by Honeywell and has the option for a small upgrade which enables me to fully access the system via a mobile app. This means I can set or unset my alarm from anywhere in the world. More importantly, I can check my system is set and view full logs from home on my mobile phone. Now if I get an alarm call in the middle of the night I can remotely view my CCTV and check the alarm system, plus reset, all without leaving my bed – full control and peace of mind.

Cast an eye over security cameras

Posted by: Richard Inglis Thu, 19 Apr 2018

Security is an important part of any c-store and a key part of this is our CCTV system. Just like everything technology-based, it has changed a lot in the past 10 years.

It does not seem that long ago we were running our old time-lapse VHS system, loading a fresh tape every 24 hours. Times have changed with Digital Video Recorders (DVRs), making the VHS system feel like a dinosaur.

We now operate the latest system in our stores, Network Video Recorders (NVRs), which can produce playback quality that will make your DVRs feel out of date. So what is the difference? Well, in basic terms, DVRs work with cameras connected via BNC connectors and the same cable used for your TV aerial at home. NVRs work with network cable (Cat 5). The difference from a user point of view is a far better picture and playback – think of it as the same change when HD TV started. The difference is that a good NVR system will be able to produce a picture that will easily result in an ID from a crime.

So why is CCTV so important? For most, it is a requirement of your alcohol licence. Just make sure you put the cameras where they will be the most useful. My advice is that you should have cameras placed directly over the tills; no more change issues or cashback problems. Also place a camera focused on your entrance area with the aim of getting good face shots, even consider using a pole to lower the camera.

Did you know that you can get cameras that record audio? They are a very useful upgrade. I have had a few customers complain that my staff were rude and abusive. Without audio cameras I would not have any proof, just their word against my staff. With audio cameras I could prove that they were lying and that my staff had actually experienced the abuse. 

If you are looking to upgrade then really you need to make sure you are moving to good NVR system running IP cameras. Don’t forget to make sure that the system you choose will meet the terms of your licence – we needed to have 30 days of recordings and, yes, the police here do check this. Maybe have a look at the range of suppliers out there to see what’s available.

The high-tech way to sell tobacco

Posted by: Richard Inglis Wed, 21 Mar 2018

I would suspect that, like us, tobacco sales make up a large chunk of your sales. It may not have the greatest margin, but it certainly does add to bottom-line profits. It’s an area which has been impacted hugely by new legislation and when we realised that changes were coming, we decided that we had to do something to improve things.

First we reviewed sales for slow sellers – we had a lot of them! When was the last time you did this for your store? Your epos system has all of the numbers, so it’s time to start making it work for you. Once we had removed the dead lines, our range had gone from 178 lines in February 2015 to 38 today. The result is that customers haven’t been walking out and our sales are up in units sold.

We have also tried out two different display systems: first Servertab, the overhead gantry option. Now this is just my personal opinion, but I loved this option to start with. It had lots of positives; freeing up space behind the counter and so on. The problem came once plain packaging was introduced, as it took staff too long to find the correct packet for the customer. We had the same problem on our traditional gantries – a sea of plain packets that all looked the same. So we retired our Servertab and took the jump and installed Navarra vending units. Yes, I know this is the geeky solution to selling tobacco, but my customers and staff love it. Our high-tech solution has increased service speed, increased space for other lines behind the counter, and improved security.

There are lots of companies that offer vending units, but maybe next time you go to the National Convenience Show (16-18 April, Birmingham NEC), take a closer look and review your gantry options. They may not be cheap, but how much are you spending to operate your cheaper option? How long are your customers having to wait? Does it make sense to have your highest-value line in basically an open box?

A quick search on Google will show just how big a problem cigarette robberies have become. Storing our tobacco in a locked steel box fixed to the wall and floor certainly has helped me sleep better. That expensive gantry may be a smart move, saving you in terms of cash and hassle.

Let the tech take the strain

Posted by: Richard Inglis Tue, 20 Feb 2018

The truth is, running a convenience store is not that hard – but staff management is. Most of my time is taken up dealing with staff issues. So how can tech help manage people? The honest answer is that it will never replace a good chat with your staff, or a calm head (the ‘Alan Sugar-style’ is not the way forward). However, it can help reduce the work load associated with your business. This leaves my managers with more time to deal with customers and improving store standards.

We use a web-based program called ‘Parim’. This one tool does all of the following: rotas, holiday allowances & booking, absence controls, proof of right to work, clocking-in system, smart phone apps, messaging systems… the list goes on. Without getting too techy, you manage your rota via a web browser and your staff can view this in the same way or via an app – if you have used Google calendar (or Apple’s equivalent) you are more than halfway there. A quick look on Google and you will find lots of different options from different companies all offering free trials – this really is a huge market!

We have been using our current system for more than two years now and have shown it to a lot of different retailers as well as people from different businesses. The one thing that always amazes me is that everyone loves our system, but it is normally closely followed by a “but”. The “but” is the fact they don’t like change and it’s far easier to find a reason not to make the move rather than make some changes. The reality is this will be a big change for your business if you decide to give it a go and it will take a couple of months to get things right. ‘But’ imagine the benefits it could bring: even after paying the monthly costs it saves me more than £6,000 a year across three stores; more importantly it takes far less of my own and my staff’s time. No more disagreements about rotas, or when someone is due back from holiday, or forgetting to cover a shift! It’s an end-to-end solution.

When was the last time you did a store refit? Maybe now is the time to refresh your staff management; it’s your biggest cost and your greatest asset, and it deserves a second look.

Tech matters

Posted by: Richard Inglis Tue, 23 Jan 2018

Hi all, this is my first column for C-Store. 
I have been asked to share with you the benefits and types of technology that we use in our Southampton Welcome Co-op stores, so I do hope you find it helpful!

I often get asked about how and why we use the latest tech in our stores, and why technology is so important to today’s convenience store owner. Are you a technophobe?

In 2007 Apple launched the very first iPhone, and now more than 10 years later I would bet that most of you now have a smart phone (Apple or other). Clearly, a lot has changed. So now look at how you run your business today and compare it with 10 years ago: what has changed and what hasn’t? When did you last review how you operate your store? Why do you do each task? Maybe now is the time to review what you do and why.

We all know staff costs are key and, with increasing minimum wages, it worries me that retailers just look at cutting staff hours without first reviewing processes. Cutting hours without first reviewing what you and your employees are doing every day could be very damaging to your businesses. Over the past three or so years we have been looking into how we can reduce the amount of functions our staff complete – or in other words, make it simpler for them to do their jobs. For example, if you could save five minutes every day for the rest of your life by just spending two hours changing your systems once, I would like to think you would all jump at the chance.

You need only look at the Big Four – what major retailer does not have self-serve tills these days? They are making changes because they need to, to remain profitable. We need to do the same.

The retail food market is one of the most competitive, and we all need to adapt to remain successful. I like to think this is where we can thrive: technology can be our friend, helping to do the same thing, but taking less time. It does not need to be expensive to make a difference and that smart phone in your pocket can do a lot more than play Angry Birds. I hope that over the next few months I can share with you all a few of the things that we have done to make our stores run more smoothly.

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