Big Stores Need Your Expertise, Too
One integrator partners on a 10,000-terminal point of sale contract to offer customized service and reasonably priced hardware.
It may seem from the outside that end users with large in-house IT staffs don't need help from VARs and integrators. For example, Roger Dean, president of Atlanta Computer Sales, Inc. (ACS) (Atlanta), a systems integrator of POS (point of sale) and medical equipment, found himself asking an auto parts retailer, "Why do you need me? You have 30 very intelligent IT people working for you already." Dean learned end users are looking for VARs to point them in the right technology direction by narrowing the vendor field and providing project management.
When the auto parts retailer was looking to replace its UNIX platform with Windows 2000 and upgrade its POS hardware throughout its more than 2,000 stores, it went to ACS for advice. "The company was handcuffed to its technology. It was limited to buying from one vendor, which was becoming costly and inhibiting," Dean said. The stores' hardware peripherals were cumbersome and outdated. For example, keyboards were connected via four cable hookups, increasing the possible points of failure.
A Payoff From Peripherals
ACS had supplied the retailer with POS hardware for three years, but it won the new system upgrade project by offering additional customer service and low hardware prices. The retailer wanted its in-house MIS (management information system) team to create new inventory software and add e-commerce functionality to its stores, but it had to make sure the system hardware could fulfill its needs. ACS coordinated a research effort for the retailer to identify worthy vendors. "We took the proposed configuration to six different hardware manufacturers, and for nine months we looked for the unit that best met the retailer's needs," Dean said. "Since they have custom software, every system driver needed to be considered. We scrutinized each proposed solution right down to the UPS [uninterruptible power supply]."
In the end, the auto parts retailer chose to install IBM servers and more than 10,000 IBM thin client terminals in its stores. And although the company purchased the servers and POS terminals directly from IBM, the retailer worked with ACS to purchase scanners from Symbol Technologies, Inc. (Holtsville, NY), cash drawers from APG Cash Drawer (Minneapolis), and keyboards from Cherry Corporation (Waukegan, IL).
ACS included its POS distributor, PC4 (Charlotte, NC), on many of the customer conversations to ensure any custom orders were coordinated successfully. For example, the retailer replaced its keyboards with customized Cherry G80-8113 versions. Cherry customized the 122-key peripheral with the retailer's own function keys, which minimized training. The Cherry keyboard's card swipe is located across the top, which the retailer found more convenient. It also interfaced easily with the Windows platform.
Success Is In The Integration Details
Once the decision process was complete, the auto parts retailer still needed ACS to coordinate the system rollout to more than 2,000 stores, each with four to six POS terminals. As of August 2002, the retailer had installed the POS systems in 30% of the chain; but at a rate of 140 stores a month, the rollout has been the most challenging part of the project. "The retailer hires outside technicians to install the systems each night between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., and everything goes smoothly if the hardware is preconfigured correctly," Dean said. "To ensure it is, we ship all the hardware pieces to one of the retailer's distribution centers where the IT department installs the software, bundles it, and sends it off to the stores." ACS also disposes of the retailer's old hardware - a process that needs to comply with strict national regulations. It's these service details that ACS thinks endears it to its customers for the long term.
Most integrators don't like to do custom work when the labor is more than the hardware costs, but ACS thinks no part of the project is too small. "In the auto parts installation, our customer's scanners needed a cable protocol converter for the device to work with the system. The item cost only $5, but each one needed to be custom wired," Dean said. "Most integrators wouldn't provide the solution for such a small profit, but if the customer calls and says he needs something like this, we will drop everything and turn out a solution in 24 hours."
Customer Service Pays Off Over Time
ACS prides itself on its long-lasting customer relationships, some of which have been in existence since 1983. And although not all of its customers are large retail chains, the company tries to treat all of its customers with the same level of service. "We certainly feel like we gained experience from working with our auto parts customer, and we are looking at other related opportunities," Dean said. "In one upcoming POS rollout at a gas station chain, we will face similar challenges with upgrading systems." Since the integrator maintains its business relationships for so long, it isn't surprising that end users turn to it when it's time to make major hardware changes throughout their chains.