Transforming C-Store Connectivity: How Fuel Retailers Can Unlock and Unite Their Data
Today’s fuel retailers face a challenge and an opportunity: they are sitting on a wealth of data.
This is an opportunity, of course, because data is the new gold. Especially in a competitive industry with tight margins, optimized data can be the difference between market leadership and struggling to turn a profit. Data enables greater visibility and deeper insights, which lead to better decisions that ultimately impact the bottom line.
A number of roadblocks, however, stand between C-store owners and the power of their data. Most data is locked in individual devices and fueling sites, preventing enterprise value. Pumps, tank gauges, and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices often lack universal connectivity, so they can’t “talk” to each other or centralized data hubs. Brittle networking at fuel sites increases costs and reduces ROI. And the challenges just keep coming: more “smart” devices continue to enter the ecosystem, creating more hardware and data that must be managed alongside all of the “keep the lights on” infrastructure that already taxes the system.
Transforming the edge must go beyond pumps and public cloud
One approach to wrangling all this data is connecting pumps or other devices directly to the cloud. This seems, at first blush, like a straightforward way to unlock the data from the device. Fire up a smart pump, send off the data, build some standards around how, precisely, dispensers should interact with the cloud, and voila -- the insights are at your doorstep.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Transforming the edge cannot happen in a microcosm consisting solely of pumps and public cloud.
First, cloud storage gets expensive, fast. The amount of data that is sent and stored is already extraordinary and it’s not slowing down. Existing IoT devices, like smart pumps, will start to gather more granular data and more of it, while new machines will come online. From point-of-sale systems to slurpee machines, an increasing number of devices are becoming smart-enabled -- and all of that data has to go somewhere.
Further, building a system predicated on individual devices or types of devices pointing directly to the cloud creates a network of one-off connections. Every time a new device or type of device needs to be connected, it must be done individually. Each device may be able to talk to the cloud, but devices can’t talk to each other, which dramatically limits visibility and potential insights. Every new device requires new considerations around security, standards, storage and more, and the process must be repeated every time a new smart system enters the arena.
Finally, simply moving data to the cloud does not translate to value. Like gold, data must be processed to be valuable. Sending it to AWS or Azure may free the data from the pump, but it doesn’t provide the analysis necessary to turn data into a competitive advantage.
Unite customer experience and operations data to extract real value
What’s the alternative? A strategic approach to IoT connectivity that blends customer experience and operations data for a truly holistic view into the business.
Instead of constructing individual “roads” from devices to the cloud, all with their own standards, keep the data at home and centralize it. Consolidate data from across the convenience store ‒ the pump, tank gauge, POS system, refrigerator, hot dog machine, frozen drink maker, you name it ‒ into a central, multi-modal solution at the edge that can intelligently process it in a unified way.
This approach has several benefits:
- The data can be analyzed and interpreted as a whole instead of in silos. This provides an overarching view of performance and operations that cannot be attained by looking at one data set on its own.
- Data can be processed and acted on in real time. You can more easily identify exceptions, correlations, and trends, then make decisions immediately to take advantage of them.
- It is easier and more efficient to consume all of your data in one place instead of looking through five different portals. Not only do you gain a holistic view, you save time doing so.
- By performing computing at the edge, you can cull the data and send only what is meaningful to the cloud. This conserves bandwidth and can dramatically reduce cloud storage and processing costs.
With a holistic, real-time view of data from across the C-store ecosystem, you can marry data from the pump with POS information from the store. Instead of simply flagging that pump X is doing Y and needs to be fixed, you can see that on Thursdays, when the temperature is above 80 degrees, customers averaged 10 gallons of fuel and $3.68 worth of purchases, mostly on cold drinks. You can compare tank levels with flow rates with purchase behaviors. You can monitor the temperature inside your smart refrigerators, ensuring that you maintain contractual obligations to your supplier to keep the ice cream from melting. And you can do it all in one place.
For fuel retailers, IoT connectivity is a good and powerful thing. Linking pumps to the cloud may be a solid place to start. The future, however, demands an interconnected architecture that not only unlocks the data, it makes quick and easy sense of it. To do more with your data, it must be brought together, processed fast, and part of a larger, open set of standards. I think we’re close, and for C-store operators who embrace it, I think it will be game-changing.
Stephen Webster is a pioneering leader who creates technology-driven solutions that solve difficult business problems. Stephen thrives on the never ending array of opportunities to apply technologies in the right place, at the right time and in the right way. He has provided expert commentary on topics ranging from data security to cloud computing, and has been featured on Bauer Business Focus, NPR and CBS Radio. Stephen holds an MBA in Finance from the University of Houston and a BA in Computer Science from the University of Texas at Austin.