Ensuring Automation

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Ensuring Automation

If Becky Schall is not at her desk, chances are she can be found in the store automation lab, either testing new software or working to solve a technical issue occurring at one or more of the stores. At the time of CSNews' visit, the company was testing a new equipment interface.

"I work a lot in the store automation lab dealing with problems and simulating issues at the stores, as well as testing new software," Schall said.

If a call comes into the help desk and can't be fixed, her department is the next step -- especially if numerous stores are calling in with the same issue.

"We go to the lab and try to duplicate the issue first before we contact the vendor," she explained. "If we can't duplicate it and the issue occurred at one location, we sometimes wait to see if it happens again, and if several stores call in with the same issue, then we know it's a problem."

As the manager of back-office systems in store automation, Schall typically starts her day at 7 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. She has five direct reports. She started with the company 15 years ago through the Ultramar Diamond Shamrock acquisition, where she began in the maintenance department. After four years, she switched gears to work in the fuel-pricing department, and at the time of the acquisition, was working with store auditing. She spent two years in the store automation department, and six years ago, she moved into her current position.

The back-office group and Schall work closely with the point-of-sale (POS) and pricebook groups regarding functionality and ensuring everything from the POS gets into the accounting software on the back end, she explained.

"There are always multiple projects going on at one time, and there is no downtime," she said. "You never get bored."

Currently, the group is working on 29 projects, two or three are considered major, including a POS and back-office upgrade, and a cost-savings initiative to reduce the amount of paper that automatically prints in the stores.

The work continues to pay off. When Schall first started working with the store automation department more than eight years ago, it took two hours for managers to complete paperwork, and now it's down to approximately 20 minutes. With the current systems in place, everything is automated.

Five years ago, her team deployed PDI's store assistant handheld, which took the place of manually keying in inventory orders and added functionality for suggestive ordering.

"This allowed managers to take the handheld onto the floor and scan the items to be ordered, and the suggestive ordering helps us not only stay in stock, but avoid overstock," she noted.

This feature started with perishable products three years ago, and last year the company finished rollout to the cigarette category. "We have reduced inventory a lot, while still supplying the customer with what they want," Schall said.

Additionally, the company is in the process of planning a rollout of a new Falcon handheld using Windows, which allows managers to work on everything from grocery, invoicing and ordering to spoilage and waste. At the time of CSNews' visit, Valero had 70 in the field.

"It's very user-friendly with a touchscreen, and it is easier to read with a more ergonomic handle," she said.

In addition to her technical duties, Schall also works with the training department to write manuals for different technologies used at the company, and is currently developing the manual for the new handheld. She also puts together training simulations for assistant managers to use in the store training labs.

Her favorite part of the job is working with store managers and making their job easier to do. "We want them on the floor and not in the back office," she said.

She meets with area managers and managers in each zone frequently to get feedback and see what type of functionality they want in their stores, and what is working or not working for them. These zones include California, Arizona, Colorado and Texas, and each trip takes about two days, she said.

Also, everyone in her department is required to work in a store two days each year -- half of the time working the register and servicing customers.

"It helps keep us grounded, and we can gather ideas on how to make things better," she said. "We create good relationships with managers and then when we have to test something, we know who we can go to, and who will give us really good feedback."

-- Started with the company 15 years ago, and has served in her current position in back-office systems for six years.
-- Previously worked in maintenance, fuel pricing and store auditing departments.
-- Skills needed for her job: "You can't be afraid to break things. You have to have the mentality that if something breaks you always fix it." Also, you need to be someone who can walk through things step by step and follow the logic.