This willingness to move into the digital age can be seen at a number of MidCounties Co-op stores. The society has not shied away from introducing innovative technology to help its retailers and customers. Self-serve tills have been set up in a number of stores and its Cheltenham branch operates entirely on the self-serve system. Other innovations include pay-by-touch and electronic shelf-edge labels - which can be easily updated through the store's epos system.
Spokesperson for the society Adrian Baradell explains: "We've introduced a number of new technologies, first and foremost to improve customer service. It's not simply been done to reduce labour costs. Self-scanning in our Cheltenham store was not a means of getting rid of a load of staff but to change the way in which staff can relate to shoppers. It means their time is freed up and they can interact more with customers."
Electronic shelf-edge labels were first introduced to MidCounties Co-op stores 18 months ago. Baradell says that they have helped reduce time-consuming jobs and adds: "The electronic labels have done away with the need for paper tickets, with a LED box displaying the price instead. It means there is a quicker turnaround when a price changes and staff are able to easily update prices through the store computer. It's another example of freeing up more staff time in order to improve customer service."
It's not uncommon for retailers to fit their stores with the latest gadgets and systems but then fail to use them to their full potential, according to Londis retail systems controller Tony Nelder. "The effect technology has on convenience stores depends on how efficient retailers are at using their systems," he says. "Some retailers are happy to just have the price control at the checkout but the more efficient users can enjoy the benefits of greater stock control, suggested ordering and accurate reporting to manage their businesses."
Nelder believes retailers can save labour costs by up to 2% simply by introducing scanning systems. "Scanning can help for a number of reasons," he says. "There is no need to price goods at the time of deliveries; faster checkout operation means there is no need to check products without a price; and there is reduced stockholding and more shrinkage control."
Hand-held terminals are now commonplace in many Londis stores through the group's newest system, Londis Manager. "This uses a radio frequency terminal that allows retailers to check stock in real time, adjust as necessary and monitor shrinkage," says Nelder. "It's a Windows-based system running on XP and is very modern."
Nelder says retailers who remain wary of installing modern technology should ease concerns by talking to other shopkeepers. He adds: "There is sometimes a fear factor or lack of willingness to invest in technology. However, a greater number now understand they need technology to manage their businesses to a high standard."
Spar has been active in making a number of new technologies available to members. Retailers can now spend more time managing the store rather then being stuck in the back office, says IT controller Roy Ford. One of the latest gadgets being tested is a hand-held device to assist with tasks such as monitoring best-before and sell-by dates.
Ford explains: "The hand-held terminals are about recording data electronically and making jobs easier." Ford believes that in general retailers are quite open to new technology but that some continue to look backwards to the time when data was recorded manually. "Some retailers don't use technology to its full potential," he says. "The important thing they should understand is that systems and equipment are getting easier to operate all the time."
Spar is also looking to develop self-serve checkouts, with a number set up in EuroSpar stores in Northern Ireland. And Ford sees no reason why smaller convenience stores should not introduce the system. "There is definitely a place for them in convenience stores," he says. "They enable retailers to perhaps employ one checkout supervisor to oversee five tills rather than employing five separate members of staff."
Ford adds: "We're also looking at the use of Radio Frequency Identification, (RFID) labels but more so for cases coming through the back door rather than on individual packets of crisps for example. RFID could highlight to retailers that a missing case is sitting in the back office somewhere."
Retail solutions provider Torex has won a number of contracts with symbol groups and independent retailers alike who want to update or introduce new technologies. Convenience business unit sales director Huw Carey believes retailers can benefit from introducing relatively basic epos systems through to more sophisticated systems such as its ePerformance software, which monitors staff levels to ensure key times of the day are covered by correctly skilled staff. Somerfield is testing ePerformance in its convenience and forecourt stores across the country. The company claims it can reduce labour costs by up to 10%.
Carey explains: "About 10 years ago epos systems were still quite expensive, but today a great deal of equipment is within reach. It's important convenience retailers have at least a basic system in place which links up to the back office."
Carey echoes the belief that many systems can offer valuable information to help cut labour costs. He comments: "Modern transaction times have been drastically reduced, meaning stores can often operate with fewer checkouts. Modern epos systems are powerful PCs in their own right. Electrical devices now help retailers to dramatically cut time and costs and reduce a lot of the legwork involved. The hand-held terminals, for example, are a great way of reducing shrinkage and labour costs."
Torex is in the process of developing an RFID system which it expects to make available to retailers this year. "RFID will give retailers greater control," says Carey. "It basically means they can track products at every stage, from the back office through to shoppers' baskets. RFID will also help with real-time stock updating and reduce the time retailers and staff spend checking stock levels on shelves."
Carey believes it's vital retailers don't dismiss technology as something they can do without, but instead use it to save time and boost sales. He adds: "The convenience market is a massive growth area. C-store retailers have to follow technology trends to keep pace with the multiples. They must invest to remain profitable."
Londis retailer Charles Brading runs Vic's Stores on the Isle of Wight. He has been operating with an epos system for the past 15 years and is adamant technology has improved the performance of his store. "I think it's extremely important to have the latest technology," says Charles. "The technology we've introduced helps with efficiency, reduces staff levels and has increased our gross profit margin.
"We have automatic ordering set up which saves a lot of time. In the past I would have spent three hours twice a week manually going round the store with an order book but now it's done in about 30 seconds. It also reduces any human error. In the past I might have over ordered to cover myself.
"Technology has certainly given me more time on the shop floor. I also use a hand-held terminal for stocktaking, which is very useful. It will soon be even easier as I've just ordered a new wireless scanner. It will mean I won't have to run between the back office and the shop floor to download the information."
Charles says he doesn't understand why retailers fail to use systems to their full potential. "It's not worth installing systems just for the sake of it," he adds. "Retailers shouldn't be afraid of technology and need to move with the times to survive. I initially spent about £8,000 on my system
but I made my money back within two years."