Convenience Chain CIO: Payment Systems Bleeding Stores Dry

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 2004-11-19

Convenience Chain CIO: Payment Systems Bleeding Stores Dry

Wawa CIO Neil McCarthys voice reveals his anger as he recounts a recent meeting he had with bank executives to complain about high credit card fees that are out of proportion with services.

Wawas 550 stores sell a huge amount of gasoline: about 110,000 gallons per week per store, which places it among the highest volume in the country. Typical volume for U.S. gas stations is about 40,000 gallons, McCarthy said.

Soaring gas prices have doubled the typical fuel bill, meaning that the same gallons of gas are being pumped and sold, but the credit card company is taking double the money.

"Youre killing us with these fees, I told them. And they nodded and said, Yeah, we hear you. Were not going to do anything about it, but we hear you."

Thats when the CIO made a new priority of exploring payment system options.

Retail payment system choices have become much more numerous in the last few years, with contactless readers that more easily integrate with POS, chip-embedded smartcards, keyfobs, and even the ability to use a customers own cell phone or PDA as an impromptu payment device.

But these alternatives are becoming especially attractive in areas—such as convenience store chains like Wawa—that have historically been dominated by cash and, to a much lesser extent, debit.

Many of these systems pitch CRM (customer relationship management) integration as a key selling point, but McCarthy doesnt see that as an issue for his customers.

Staples does consider CRM important for its customers and has integrated it with its rebate program. To read more, click here.

Contactless payment system vendors and banks "were touting CRM, but our average ticket is $3 or $4. Our customers tell us, We dont want the gimmicks. We dont want the loyalty programs."

Next Page: Customers want convenience.

Page 2

What convenience store customers do want is convenience, and they often interpret that as speed. Speed happens to be one of the arguments in favor of contactless devices, but McCarthy said he didnt see the speed argument playing out.

The big time savings sold to him was that customers wouldnt have to spend the time handing a clerk his or her credit and waiting for the clerk to later hand it back. But Wawa—which has its stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia—had already installed magstripe readers for the customers to use directly.

"Our customers, they swipe their card anyway. We have the device in front of the register. [The customer] still has to take it out, so it wasnt a really big time savings." McCarthy said that he concluded the checkout acceleration would be too small to be worthwhile.

But some in the banking community are discussing allowing small credit transactions—those that are less than $25—to complete without a signature, McCarthy said. Now that time savings would be much more significant, he said.

Will consumers cell phones and PDAs be the next checkout device? To find out, click here.

McCarthy has already tried shortening the payment duration with a frame relay connection to every store, which "delivers a 2- to 3-second response time on credit, which is awesome," he said.

He is also trying to modernize the chains cash management system, but thats proving difficult. "The biggest thing were facing right now is that we have a lot of legacy applications" including many that are about 18 years old, he said. As those systems are replaced, Wawa will be able to improve its cash management.

With the current state of banking and credit/debit cards, McCarthy is also seriously exploring creating a Wawa-branded credit card as a way of taking control—to a certain extent—its out-of-control fees. Not only does he believe Wawa will be able to negotiate lower fees, but the chain would earn money from the cards they issue as the banks want cards that will be used for many kinds of purchases.

At 7-Eleven, the CIO feels very positively about RFID and what it can do for inventory. To read his thoughts on inventory and deployment, click here.

McCarthy said that RFID wireless payment systems—similar to Mobils Speedpass—is of interest, but that he would love to be able to use RFID to help with inventory. "There certainly is a lot of applicability," he said.

But todays tag prices—McCarthy said hes still seeing prices from 25 cents each to as much as 50 cents—are still far too high to consider for such a low-margin retailer. He said he needs to see the tags selling for "probably a penny or so."

"Youre making a couple of cents on an item. How can you afford to do that" unless the price gets to about one penny? he said. McCarthy also said he needs to factor in the additional storage and related data management costs. "Think of the data requirements. Every SKU could have multiple records."

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman can be reached at

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on technologys impact on retail.

Rocket Fuel