Thanks to an increasing number of new technologies, you no longer need to be in-store to run a successful business. C-Store talks to retailers about how they use remote retailing to their advantage

Not so long ago, taking a holiday was the stuff of myth and legend within the convenience sector. Many retailers didn’t dare take a day off from work, let alone an entire week.

But these days, remote access means retailers can access business data and address any queries from the other side of the world with a tap of their phone. “I can be in whichever destination in the world – as long as I’ve got access to WhatsApp and MyPC from my smartphone, I can do everything I do in the office,” claims Best-one retailer Kay Patel, who owns five stores in East London. “I’ve sat on the beach in the past and someone has messaged saying that a product isn’t scanning. I’ll enter it on the system for them from 2,000 miles away.”

Aberdeenshire retailer Sid Ali, who owns five Nisa stores, regularly travels to South Asia with zero disruption to his business. “Where remote working really comes into its own is when you’re travelling east,” he says. “My wife likes to visit family in Pakistan so when we’re on holiday I ask the girls to scan the order the night before, then I get up at 6am (it’s still 2am in the UK), dial-in, check the order and it’s all done before staff get to the store.”

But working remotely isn’t just about being able to take a holiday, it has completely transformed the way in which some retailers operate.

The ability to work remotely has enabled Kay to restructure his business model. He has removed managers from his stores altogether and has one floating manager with whom he works alongside in his home office.

“We have a linked epos system to check sales, pricing, new product entry and so on. I do all that from home, so staff don’t have a back office in the store. Anything they need doing, myself or my manager will do from my home. He’ll sit here with me and do the rotas or the payroll and I do the ordering.

“Staff just line-scan items and gap check and I can handle all the back-end stuff.”

He claims that being able to work remotely has given him time to master his epos system, which has enabled him to save the company a small fortune. “The efficiencies I’ve got from here, I’d have to pay someone full-time to do this job and that’s £40-£50,000 a year. Any retailer who does most of the shifts in his store, ask him if he really understands his back office epos system and does he use it to its maximum potential, and the answer is no. If you’re in a constantly on-the-go shop, it’s very hard to learn how your epos works, but when you’re sitting in a home office then you can get to grips with it.”

Sid has also removed managers from store, opting to take care of the back office element himself remotely.

“The beauty for me is I tend to work late at night,” says Sid. “I can be sitting at home at 10 or 11pm, I’ll be watching the football or listening to some music and I’ll also be dialled into the computer and doing an order. I might see that a line is no longer available, for example, if Coca-Cola changed their price on 500ml bottles from £1.09 to £1.25, I can just dial into head office and make £1.09 inactive so that no stores can no longer order it any more.”

Working remotely has been a real game changer for area manager Saeed Noorani, too, who looks after five Sharma Garages sites in the West Midlands. “I work on my laptop from the comfort of my home regularly,” says Saeed. “I can dial into any of the five sites, check sales and amend prices. I can even dial into the epos system and look at what the cashiers are doing.”

Saeed has been able to work remotely for the past two years, and prior to this had to do a lot of travelling between stores. “Look at the savings I make in fuel, wear and tear on my car, and my mental health,” he says. “Before, I could only attend certain events, whereas now I can go to lots more, such as the National Convenience Show, and pick up new ideas for the business.”

There are several platforms retailers can use to gain remote access to their stores’ computer systems. Kay relies on Teamviewer, Saeed uses LogMeIn, and Sid opts for Splashtop, with Teamviewer as a back-up.

“We looked at other solutions and came across Splashtop,” says Sid. “It’s ideal for small businesses and allows for use of 10 computers,” says Sid. “We’ve got five sites, plus a head office, and we are also able to add personal computers as well.”

Not only is Sid able to work from home, he can also access all of his stores’ data, as well as head office, from any site. “All our sites have access to every other site. So if I’m working at a store and an offer isn’t going through correctly, I can just open up another tab, open up the head office computer remotely, and fix it there and then.”

This has also helped greatly with availability. “We’re buying smarter and checking availability levels more,” he says. “If something’s out of stock in one store, we’ll quickly dial-in and check the other stores. Last weekend we had a heatwave. We had tons of disposable BBQs in one store and none in the others and within hours they all had some.”

The wonder of WhatsApp

Messaging platform WhatsApp has become a key tool for retailers on the go, enabling them to communicate with, and send photos to, other team members. “With email, you’ve got to save a photo, find where you’ve saved it, make sure you’ve sent the attachment, whereas WhatsApp is instant,” says Saeed.

Working remotely has got “better and better as time has gone on,” points out Kay, who uses WhatsApp for most of his staff correspondence. “Before, the manager would do store walks – check floors are mopped, this is filled and that’s ordered. Everything was done with pen and paper checklists. Then WhatsApp came along and that changed everything. You can tell staff what to do instantly, send them planograms, get lists from them.”

He claims that each member of staff gets about 15 or 20 messages a day. “We have different groups and different broadcast lists for evening staff, cashiers and so on.”

Kay also uses the platform to keep training up to date. “With age-related sales, I regularly remind staff of the law, and they come back to me and acknowledge that they’ve read it and understand it, so if I was ever pulled up I have a record on WhatsApp that I regularly train them.”

He also takes full advantage of the app’s ability to send photos. “When the deliveries come, they’ll take a picture on WhatsApp and send it to me before unloading. I’ll check the order off myself because I placed it. Also, if one store was to get a fake bank note in their takings, I would take a photo and send it to all the staff to warn them to be careful.”

Sid is also a fan of WhatsApp. “We have a WhatsApp group for each store, as well as for supervisors and managers,” he says. “We go to one store, re-lay a fixture, take a picture of it and then send it to the other stores on WhatsApp and say: ‘Here’s what we’ve done with the confectionery, please can you implement it in your stores’.”

Staying connected

Harris Aslam, director of Eros Retail, which comprises seven stores in Scotland operating under the Green’s brand in partnership with Nisa, also uses WhatsApp for day-to-day business communication. “We’ve got about 30 WhatsApp groups – one for HR, one per store, a management one and so on.”

However, as the group looks to take on another two stores, Harris is finding that the app has limitations. “Right now, WhatsApp is fine – it works. But you can’t go back to search for things, and to pin things it’s a pain.”

Instead, he is now looking at social networking business platforms. “There’s one called Workplace by Facebook whereby you can create different message groups, post threads; if you see something cool you can take a photo and send it to one store, three stores, large format or small stores – however you want to split it. Anyone can directly message anyone else within the business. And you can switch it off so it keeps business separate.”

CCTV can also have an important role to play in remote working, notes Kay. “We have a Videoteknika CCTV system with 360 degree cameras. We’ve got nearly 200 cameras across all the stores,” he says. “They’re ultra-high resolution so I can see the products out on shelf and check what price they are and how they are laid out. We tend not to aim it too much towards the customers any more. We angle the cameras so that we have the maximum look at each shelf. I can then pick staff up on any issues if it’s not to planogram. And then I can make planograms and send them to everyone’s phones.”

Kay concedes that being able to work remotely means he doesn’t see his staff as regularly as he has in the past. “Now I don’t really visit the stores as much as I should, but I don’t really need to. My takings are still there and business is growing. Once a week at most I’ll visit a store, but my manager will visit each store at least once a day.”

Sid still goes into each of his five stores daily, but uses his time there more wisely. “I spend less time in-store, but it’s more productive. I won’t do mundane things – I’ll come in and say ‘Let’s remerchandise the biscuits’.

“You still need to physically get there. There’s a difference between WhatsApping somebody and physically going round to the store, putting an arm round somebody and saying ‘Come on let’s do this together’.”

He warns other retailers making the leap to remote retailing that it is only possible to be successful if you have full stock control. “Do it, but you need to have the systems in place first. If you don’t have stock control, then how do you know what’s on the shelves? You need to have a system in place where you can ‘see’ remotely what you can with your own eyes.”

However, once you have started working remotely, there’s no looking back. “Without a doubt it gives you a better work/life balance. Sometimes I pinch myself and think ‘this technology is so good’. Here I am sitting in the garden with a drink in my hand and I’m actually doing work – what more do you need?”

Saeed urges other retailers to join the remote working revolution. “Go for it,” he says. “It’s easy to set up, you just need an internet connection. By speaking to other retailers you can see what they’re doing, and speak to your epos provider.

“At the start, I was sceptical that it was going to work, but it’s amazing.”

Pricing up software solutions

The following platforms enable remote desktop access, so you can use a phone or computer to connect to your store’s computer system anywhere in the world, provided you have an internet connection.

LogMeIn: £261.75 a year (access up to two computers), £628.22 (access up to five computers) and £1,151.74 (access up to 10 computers)

Splashtop: £44.71 per year per user (access up to 10 computers)

Teamviewer: from £31.90 per month for a single-user licence (one user can connect up to three devices) and from £53.91 for a floating licence (multiple users can access the same session), or £101.92 for a floating licence (multiple users can initiate device connections with up to three sessions open at the same time).