Peripheral Vision Puts Cash In The Till
This POS VAR completes 10 to 15 software upgrades a month and cashes in on peripheral improvements along the way.
Retail Information Systems' (RIS) David Alston likes the POS (point of sale) software he peddles not just for its functionality, but for the perpetual business opportunities it generates. "It's always improving, there are always upgrades to sell," the Houston VAR says. Alston counts on the timeliness of these upgrades to the extent that he's worked them into his contracts with clients. "We mandate that our clients get no more than two versions of software behind before upgrading," he asserts. "As technology becomes obsolete quickly, it becomes next to impossible to support, especially as our staff loses familiarity with old systems like DOS [disk operating system]."
Synchronize Hardware And Software Upgrades
Alston sells Retail Pro software and includes free upgrades in RIS customers' subscription plans, making it close to a given that customers will upgrade shortly after new versions are released. What isn't considered a given by customers is that hardware improvements will accompany software updates. When preparing a complete installation, VARs are careful about matching compatible hardware and software to achieve an efficient solution. But often, this efficiency is disrupted down the stretch as staggered upgrades are performed or as customers balk at hardware improvements. RIS' foresight in a recent software upgrade at The Oval Mirror, a Brenham, TX women's apparel store, helped it avoid such a disruption.
RIS had planned an upgrade from a DOS version of Retail Pro to the Windows version. "As we moved from DOS to Windows, we found that we couldn't use the dot matrix printers The Oval Mirror had been using," says Alston. System performance at the POS would have suffered severely due to the printer's memory limitations and the absence of Windows drivers. RIS' challenge was to find a printer that would perform with new versions of Retail Pro at a price that its customers would readily accept. RIS first encountered TransAct Technologies' Ithaca brand POSjet® 1000 at last year's VARTECH show put on by BlueStar. The VAR was initially drawn to the ink jet printer because it was selling at a price comparable to the dot matrix it had been carrying. But Alston says the printer gave him another element that helps him relieve a customer pain point. "This printer gave us something that our customers had been asking for - the flexibility to print graphics like logos and coupons," he says. And finally, the lapse that would have existed with a Windows to dot matrix configuration was eliminated. Printing from a new version of Retail Pro to a dot matrix printer would take an unacceptable 15 seconds per line, where the POSjet turns out more than 12 lines per second.
Of RIS' 300 clients, which account for some 1,000 stores, only a handful are still running Retail Pro 6 (the DOS version), most are on version 7 (the first version to introduce Windows), and many are in the process of upgrading to version 8, the most recent release. Making the transition from a DOS version to Windows involves running a lengthy conversion program and testing for data integrity, which can take several hours. Going from version 7 to the current version 8 requires no such conversion and is therefore a relatively quick upgrade. Typically, 10 to 20 hours are spent on training, which RIS does remotely via Symantec's pcAnywhere. The VAR trains the store's manager or owner, who in turn trains the rest of the store's staff. For post-training period emergencies, RIS built a tutorial into its product, which rescues clerks in distress with a pop-up screen that walks them through specific steps in the transaction.
The upgrade at The Oval Mirror also included new Elo TouchSystems touch screens to replace its 14-inch monitors. The combination of Windows, the POSjet, and touch navigation lopped minutes off of transaction times. "With the DOS system, an average transaction would take possibly three minutes to complete if the clerk was adding a customer to the database," says Alston. He attributes this time to inputting information with the keyboard, using the keys to move from field to field, and processing the transaction. "With the new setup, we're able to do that same transaction in about 20 seconds," he claims. Instead of keying in data, customer information is gathered by swiping a driver's license, and the touch screen, rather than the keyboard, is used to navigate fields. Alston identifies "waiting for the customer to give the clerk the tender" as the slowest part of the transaction.
Beating End User Objections
"People have a tendency to stick their heads in the sand when we tell them that we're going to have to upgrade their hardware. They think they're going to keep the system they initially bought forever," says Alston. "But this Ithaca POSjet fits into our whole plan. It's at the same price point of a dot matrix; our customers can use the same paper stock they had been using; it's virtually maintenance free; and you don't have to order anything special beyond the Hewlett-Packard ink cartridges, which last for 7 million characters," he says. But even after hearing the benefits they will realize from new peripherals, Alston says hardware expenditures are sometimes hard pills for his customers to swallow. Free software upgrades and the POSjet's price point, however, make the medicine go down a little smoother.
RIS regularly hosts free training forums at the Dallas Market Center for its customers, and Alston says the next one will likely focus on the abilities of the Ithaca POSjet printer. "We provide the software needed to include logos and other graphics on receipts," he says. "We'll probably do a class on using this software soon, then the customers can either do it themselves or continue to have us do it for them." Alston says that most of his clients use the POSjet solely as a receipt printer, but he hopes a forum will show them it's a marketing tool, as well.
Don't be surprised if the forum includes an "elements of good design" topic, as one of Alston's pet peeves is customers who put designs on their Web sites, POS interfaces, and receipts that, in his own words, "look terrible, but the customer thinks look great." He has found there is a need for VARs to provide design assistance and advice. This has provided RIS with no small challenge. For instance, Alston says, "Getting items up on a Web page is very easy, but trying to express to someone what looks good and what doesn't is not. You have to be very diplomatic. When they want to put pictures of their grandkids up there, you have to tell them why that's not the best idea." Wise VAR that he is, Alston is quick to add one caveat: "Not that the kid's not beautiful or anything," he says with a smile.