2020 was a defining year for convenience stores as they’ve proved their essential role throughout the pandemic. It was also a year in which c-stores recognized the need to modernize their technology stack in order to quickly pivot their offerings to better serve consumers in this new reality.
From rolling out new payment options like pay at the pump, contactless or self-serve payment technology, to partnering with third-party delivery services like DoorDash and Instacart, c-stores quickly realized that without agile technology capabilities, they would quickly fall behind the competition and shopper demands.
C-stores that were able to make rapid headway during this period had a technological “edge.” They got ahead of the game by creating an agile environment for their IT infrastructure at the edge — in the store — to give them more flexibility to pivot and make decisions in the face of unprecedented change. By decoupling their existing hardware from the software, they were able to make quick changes to devices and applications in the store whenever they wanted to, a far cry from the previous scenario where every device in the store is intrinsically linked, making change a costly and time-intensive process.
COVID-19 has merely accelerated the technological change that all c-stores knew was coming. C-stores recognized the need to reduce costs and improve customer experience, and the best way to do this is to make improvements in technology and operational processes.
We have entered a new era of convenience where more and more technology agility is required in the store — at the edge — and c-stores are moving fast to make adjustments.
Why? In the name of safety for customers and store associates, c-stores have been forced to experiment with new technologies much faster than they would have typically done. Even before COVID-19, c-store owners listed mobile payment apps (43 percent) and order at the pump options (41 percent) as very important to the future of their businesses. These new buying preferences are unlikely to be temporary. They may change the way consumers shop forever.
Forced to evaluate all components of their IT environment, from what devices they need throughout their store and where they should be placed, to enhancing staff productivity, is just the tip of the iceberg. COVID-19 has also accelerated the need for remote management of a c-store’s technology infrastructure, minimizing the need, risk and expense of a technician’s physical visit to the c-store for support and maintenance of store technology.
In today’s frictionless checkout market, the cost of downtime can seriously impact revenue, whether that be point-of-sale, back office, loyalty or payment system failure. And in the case of self-checkout, downtime can cause customers to be diverted to staffed registers, resulting in rising labor costs, which many c-stores simply cannot afford if they are to grow their top line and bottom line.
Gaining an Edge
To answer these demands, c-stores are looking to gain an advantage (literally, to gain an edge).
“Edge” in IT is fast becoming an essential focus area across all IT environments where local engagement with customers and technology is critical, as is the case in c-stores. Edge for retail technology provides c-store virtualization, containerization and automation by integrating in-store touchpoints — including front-of-store devices, back-of-store devices, and associated peripherals — under an intelligent retail store architecture managed from the cloud.
Edge technology has enabled c-stores to deliver superior customer and employee experiences during this time through faster innovation and radically reduced cost to serve in-store. For example, it helps to virtualize the c-store’s checkout applications, removing dependencies on hardware and operating system versions and improving resilience and availability. C-stores also benefit from improved remote identification and remediation of store technology issues.
This software-defined edge approach also complements the current organic and acquisition growth trend for c-stores. The priority is to rapidly deliver value in new stores; however, implementing existing store technology at newly acquired stores can be a costly and time-intensive process. A virtual environment solves this by enabling them to roll out store systems on existing equipment at a fraction of the time and cost.
The future of edge technology in c-stores is the extension of the application lifecycle so that c-stores can innovate, at will, by remotely deploying new applications and software updates.
Fortunately, the adoption of an edge computing strategy does not involve a wholesale rip and replace of existing infrastructure, and can be implemented at various stages of a businesses’ technology innovation lifecycle. For example, some businesses may select only a few specific applications to transition into a virtual environment at the start of the process, whereas others may want a fully virtualized store immediately.
As c-stores move forward, more workloads are going to be required to be processed at the edge, so c-stores can quickly resolve latency and bandwidth issues.
The Future of C-store Tech
Adapting quickly isn’t easy. With new customer buying habits, rising labor costs and social distancing measures required in-store, c-stores know they need to adapt fast. However, many are held back by legacy infrastructure, delaying the deployment of new services and applications. There is also a nervousness about investing in technology that may soon be out of date.
This is where the flexibility of edge technology comes into play. It gives businesses the opportunity to adapt their existing technology infrastructure, whatever stage of the digital transformation journey they are on. As in many other IT domains, edge for retail has driven change in 2020 and will play a key role in the future of c-stores.
Nick East is cofounder and CEO of Zynstra, an NCR Company, a leader in purpose-built retail edge software. His in-depth work with major retailers gives him a deep insight into the challenges retailers face and how new, innovative in-store technology can transform customer experiences and cost efficiency.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.