While the first beverage alcohol retailers to computerize did so in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many, especially those running single store operations, held onto their cash registers and their sharpened pencils.
And even for those who did computerize, the main and sometimes only function of the early computer systems was inventory control. The computer kept track of what the retailer ordered and what the retailer sold. Period.
Over the last 25 years, however, both computer technology and beverage alcohol retailers have become far more sophisticated. There used to be a time, not so long ago, when even computerized retailers didn’t use scanners. Now, systems use scanners and even wireless scanners and other wireless devices as a matter of course. For a while, the shiniest bell and whistle a computer system could have was its ability to handle frequent-shopper cards. Now, all systems worth their salt offer what are often termed “customer relationship management” (CRM) features.
Retailers used to revel in the timeliness of their business information when they could know at headquarters what their stores’ sales for the previous day were. Now, many systems, communicating over the Internet, allow retailers real-time access to their sales data, to the point where a manager or owner at headquarters can follow a sale as it is being rung at a register in a store and even take control of the transaction. And many retailers and computer companies look forward to a time in the not-too-distant future when the computer system itself will automatically re-order product.
A TOUCHING SITUATION
Perhaps the most visible and snazziest development lately is the use of touchscreens at the point-of-sale (POS). As often happens with new technologies, touchscreens were at first quite a bit more expensive than the traditional display and keyboard. These days, the price has gone down. While it is still a few hundred dollars more than a traditional set-up, some companies with touchscreens claim that because touchscreens are more durable, they actually end up costing less over the long run.
And they are durable. That was one of their big appeals for the industry where they first caught on: fast food restaurants. “These are not the easiest environments,” pointed out Todd Renner, vice president of sales & marketing for InfoTouch. “The people using them have sticky fingers. Terminals are near heat lamps.”
They also appealed to fast food operators because they were easy to use, meaning they were fast and the cashier using them didn’t need much training. “When we take our [touchscreen] system to shows, we set it up at our booth and we don’t even have to tell people how to use it, they can just walk up to it and figure it out,” said Janene Brunk, director of sales for Attitude Positive, which offers the option of using touchscreen with its POS system.
InfoTouch’s Renner pointed out that touchscreens are used on self-checkout systems and ATMS precisely because it is so easy. “All kinds of studies have shown that the use of color, of graphics, of having only one place to look when entering data [rather than looking back-and-forth between display and keyboard] make touchscreens easier, more intuitive to use,” said Renner.
InfoTouch and Attitude Positive have seen a lot of interest in touchscreen.
But some concerns remain. “Touchscreen is a nice feature,” said Bob Brown, president of ProphetLine, a company whose system can be used with touchscreens, “but we find that very few of our retailers use it. The ones who do are not trying to keep track of their customers. If you are trying to input names and addresses, a keyboard is much faster.”
Attitude Positive’s AccuPOS
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Others have found ways around this problem. Some stores move customers to a customer-service desk, where terminals are outfitted with a keyboard, when it comes to inputting a lot of information. InfoTouch’s Renner points out that a terminal can be outfitted with both a touchscreen and a keyboard. And the AccuPOS Retail system will display a keyboard-like graphic on the touchscreen for typing.
Another snazzy development that is becoming increasingly popular is the use of wireless devices. For the most part, these handheld devices, basically PDAs with built-in scanners, are used for taking physical inventories and for receiving deliveries of product. ProphetLine’s system can be used with a handheld device, from Zebra, that comes equipped with its own thermal printer. “You can do a lot of little things with these devices,” said ProphetLine’s Brown.
It was also not so long ago that beverage alcohol retailers did not accept credit cards. Some were even barred by state law from doing so. And until very recently, the only cost-effective option for handling credit card transactions for a small- to mid-sized retailer was dial-up. The credit card transaction was sent to the processor, most often through a separate terminal on the counter, over a telephone line.
Now, however, the cost of high-speed Internet communications has come down enough to put these faster technologies within reach of smaller retail operations.
One advantage of these systems is speed. Credit card transactions can be completed in two to three seconds. RTC Group works with one large beverage alcohol retail operation whose management decided to invest in high-speed technology for its credit card processing when they saw people turning around and leaving their stores during the holiday rush because of long lines at the checkout.
Often, too, the processing of the credit card is integrated right into the POS system. The amount of the sale does not have to be re-keyed. There is only one terminal on the counter. Some POS and store-management systems with integrated credit card processing allow the retailer to choose their own processor; others require the use of a processor with which the computer company has a relationship.
“A lot of retailers find it difficult to cost-justify [investing in technologies for faster credit-card processing],” admitted Neil Banerjee, spokesperson for RTC Group. But, as RTC’s beverage alcohol retailing client discovered, there are a lot of other benefits to having high-speed communications in a retail operation.
One big benefit is called “remote systems management.” Basically, the IT people of a chain can use the high-speed network to access a malfunctioning computer terminal in a store and often fix it, without leaving headquarters. “It used to be that you had to send people down to the store to see what was happening,” noted Banerjee. “This ability really helps reduce support costs.”
Customer information can also be shared chain-wide. When a customer presents his frequent-shopper card at the register of one store, the transaction information is sent, in real time, to a customer database at headquarters. That database can be used, again in real time, during the course of the transaction, to send a specific message back to the cashier about the customer. For instance, the customer who qualifies for a discount on the purchase or the system could print out a coupon tailored to their purchasing preferences.
And such customer relationship management is a big concern for retailers these days. “It’s that old saying: 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers,” said Brown of ProphetLine.
ANALYZING CUSTOMER‘S HISTORY
Computer systems now offer dazzlingly sophisticated ways of analyzing a customer’s purchasing history. “You can search by categories — people who prefer merlots, you can search by date range or by products. You can find all the customers who prefer chardonnays but have not shopped at your store in the last six months,” said InfoTouch’s Renner. “Now, the trick is what do you offer those customers? And that is up to the retailer.”
And the system can help there as well. You can set the rewards for certain categories of customers: five percent off everything for a certain period of time or 10% off certain products. Many systems can automatically offer discounts or send gift certificates (often by email) to frequent-shopper customers when they’ve purchased a certain amount from the retailer.
It took Michael Patalano, systems administrator for an advertising cooperative of eight Spirits Unlimited stores, headquartered in Toms River, NJ, a long time to find the right computer system. He even had a system installed and running in one store, as a six-month test, before deciding against it.
The eight-store Spirits Unlimited chain, headquartered in Toms River, NJ, found that AIM Systems provided the right technical mix for its operations.
Some systems couldn’t handle some of the specialized needs of a beverage alcohol retailer, such as package sizes (single bottle or can, six-pack, twelve-pack, case).
And some companies were not willing to customize. “Some wouldn’t make changes at all and others told me that they would only make a change for us if that change worked for all their other users across the country,” said Patalano.
But then another retailer told Patalano about PC/Register, a point-of-sale system, and Visual Merchandiser, a back-office and inventory-control system, from AIM Systems. Patalano looked into the products and liked what he saw.
The first store in the Spirits Unlimited co-op was installed seven months ago; the eighth and last has been up and running since July.
AIM has “been very receptive to [the idea of] customization,” said Patalano. “And its system supports things that we plan to implement in the future.” In other words, the system already has abilities that the Spirits Unlimited stores plan to use as they grow. For instance, the stores in the co-op plan to launch their own customer-loyalty programs over the next 30 days.
Perhaps the biggest change — “Which is getting the biggest rave from our managers,” said Patalano — is the new system’s high-speed credit card processing. The AIM system interfaces with a credit card processing software called PC-Charge, which sends credit card transactions over the Internet to the co-op’s processor. The system can also support debit-card transactions and gift cards.
The big advantage is, of course, speed. “Transactions had been taking 35 to 45 seconds with dial-up. That doesn’t seem like a long time until you’re the one waiting to make your purchase,” said Patalano. “Now, credit card transactions take two seconds.”
More and more computer companies are, like AIM Systems, offering integrated credit card processing. The Spirits Unlimited stores have a card swipe installed onto their POS terminals.
Some companies, like AIM, offer integrated credit card processing that allows retailers to choose their credit card processors. Other companies require retailers to use a certain credit-card processor. “I wouldn’t even call a company who didn’t let you choose your processor,” declared Patalano. The rates charged by credit card processors vary greatly. “I shop for rates at least once a year, sometimes twice a year,” said Patalano. “It keeps your guy honest.”
Now that the ability for high-speed Internet communication is in place — the Spirits Unlimited stores use cable modems, which Patalano found to be the most cost-effective option — the co-op has found other uses for it. For instance, Patalano, as systems administrator, uses it for what is called “remote systems management.”
Before, if something went wrong with a register in a store, for example, Patalano “had to drop everything and drive out to the store” to fix it. Now, he can access the register in question using his own computer right at his desk. “I’m able to fix 90 to 95% of the problems, most of which are user errors, that way,” he said. Patalano can even train people about the use of the system remotely.
And the new system at Spirits Unlimited also uses touchscreens at the point-of-sale. “Originally, we thought we would just use them at our higher-volume locations,” said Patalano. “They are faster, it’s true.”
So true, in fact, that the co-op installed them at all of its locations.
Touchscreens are not only fast, Patalano found. “They are so much more intuitive, just so simple, self-explanatory,” he said. “We’ve had absolutely no trouble training staff, not even people with no experience or who are intimidated by computers.”
The touchscreens have been a big success. “They’re phenomenal,” said Patalano. “We wouldn’t go back.”
Indeed, with its new computer system in place, the stores in the Spirits Unlimited co-op are set to grow their businesses.
Retailers have a wider choice than ever when it comes to how they computerize their businesses. They can go with a system designed specifically for beverage alcohol retailers, such as those from Atlantic, Cetech, DataBeverage Alcohol and Innovative. The advantage of these is that they are set up with how the beverage alcohol business is done, with its types and sizes of packaging and how they can be broken up, for example, and with how spirits are taxed in different states.
But these days, even the biggest companies, including Microsoft, are turning their attention to the small- and mid-sized retailer. Indeed, some companies that produce systems that can be used by various types of small to mid-sized retailers will develop an expertise in the beverage alcohol retailing industry. Datasym, for example, is currently used by over 500 beverage alcohol retailers.
ALL FOR ONE OR ONE FOR ALL?
As the use of computerized systems has become more sophisticated, the question before even the smallest retailer isn’t which system to use, but which systems and how they will integrate together. AccuPOS Retail, for example, is a POS system and a POS system only. It was designed, “truly written from the ground up,” said director of sales Brunk, to be integrated with the most popular accounting packages, including QuickBooks, Peachtree and BusinessWorks. Once AccuPOS Retail handles the ringing of sales, the resulting information then flows to the accounting software, which handles inventory management.
“Tell the computer companies you’re looking at that you’re already using X for your accounting or Y for your POS,” said InfoTouch’s Renner. “Ask them, ‘Do you interface with them? How? Show me,’ and if a company makes a big deal about it, run for the hills because the concept of transferring information is easy.”
Renner believes in looking for the best of breed for each aspect of your operation. “If I was a business owner and it was my money, I’d want the most bang for the buck,” he said. “Very few POS companies know much about payroll, for example. The one size fits all approach is not realistic.”
ON THE HORIZON
What emerging technologies are computer experts looking at for the retail environment?
There has been a lot of interest in biometrics, when a computerized system uses an actual physical characteristic to identify a user. Some biometric products read fingerprints; others use retinal scans. This technology can be used as a security device on a computer terminal, only allowing certain people to use the computer. Biometrics is also being added to time/attendance terminals. Instead of keying an identifying number when punching in, an employee puts his or her finger on a reader to be identified. This eliminates the problem of “buddy punching,” when a fellow employee punches in for a worker who isn’t at work yet. And biometrics can even be used to identify a customer at the point-of-sale. In fact, IBM has partnered with a company called Biometric Access to add a fingerprint-reading capability to its SurePOS ACE application. Such a capability could be used to identify people in a frequent-shopper program, for example, or to offer check cashing as a service.
InfoTouch has seen a lot of interest in its system because of its touchscreen capabilities.
Even choosing whom to hire has become computerized. A number of companies offer systems that help with hiring. An applicant fills out an application at a workstation at the school or even through the company’s website. This information can then be automatically transferred to other forms, such as W-2 forms, cutting down on paperwork.
But these systems, such as the one from a company called Unicru, don’t stop there. The system will prompt the applicant to fill out the form completely and correctly. For instance, it will not allow letters to be entered for a social security number. Some will even flag incomplete information, such as a hole in the applicant’s work history, so an interviewer can follow up.
After an applicant fills out the application, the system then administers tests. According to Lindsey Miller, spokesperson for Unicru, a company that has six industrial psychologists on staff, retailers can choose the tests used by her company’s system. Applicants can take tests, for example, that are supposed to determine their honestly, dependability, ability to offer customer service and management potential. The system then ranks applicants so that the retailer can choose whom to interview.
Although right now, these systems are meant for large operations, there are signs that, as with much technology, these will eventually become cost-effective for more and more retailers. Unicru, with clients including CVS, Albertsons, Universal Studios, Blockbuster and Kroger, has just recently introduced a product, called MidMarket Solution, meant for independent grocers with 1,000 to 2,000 employees.
Computerized systems can do more and more for retailers. “Our system is not a glorified cash register,” said Brown of ProphetLine. “It gives you all the intelligence on your business — on purchasing and on whom you’re selling to — that you need.”
As the most successful beverage alcohol retailers have become more sophisticated, their computer systems have kept pace. *
AIM’s PC-based point-of-sale software, called PC/Register, is use by both beverage alcohol retailers nationwide and by several California wineries in their on-site shops. For chains, the company offers Visual Merchandiser, a software package that can automatically gather and exchange data between stores and a host computer, managing inventory and purchases for the entire chain. Costs for a complete POS system, including hardware, ranges fro $5,000 to $10,000 per register. Call 800-257-2734 or visit www.aimsystems.com
AccuPOS Retail is point-of-sale software written specifically to be integrated with the most widely used accounting packages, including QuickBooks, Peachtree and BusinessWorks, Versions 12 and Gold, from Best Software. AccuPOS, which is designed to be very easy to use at the sales counter, can support touchscreens. Prices for the software range from $595 for a basic version to $995 for the Gold version, which includes the ability to use touchscreens, a suspended sales feature, the ability to interface with barcode-printing software, an interface to PC-Charge credit card processing software and customer-information features. Attitude Positive can supply a complete system, including hardware. Call 877-888-0880 or visit www.attitudepositive.com
ATLANTIC SYSTEMS, INC. (ASI)
Atlantic Systems, Inc. has offered POS computer systems for beverage alcohol retailers since 1980. Spirits 2000 is a Windows-based software package that provides inventory and financial control for one store or a chain. The company provides complete systems including hardware, software, installation, training and support. Integrated credit/debit card processing is done via DSL, cable modem or Internet. Its Frequent Shopper Program (FSP) can collect information on customer purchases and provide the retailer assistance in rewarding the best customers with incentives. The system can identify a customer at the register using a bar-coded card or by entering the customer’s name or account number. The system also has the ability to create a mail-merge file compatible with MS Word. Prices for the Spirits 2000 system start at $10,000. For more information, call 732-280-6616, extension 27 or visit www.asi-nj.com.
Best Software specializes in business management software and services for small and mid-sized businesses, with brands such as ACT!, Peachtree, FAS, Abra, MAS 90, MAS 500, ACCPAC, BatchMasterPFW, and more. For more information, call 866-308-BEST or visit www.bestsoftware.com.
CAM COMMERCE SOLUTIONS
Founded in 1983, CAM Commerce Solutions offers point-of-sale, inventory management, integrated accounting, customer management, credit card processing and e-commerce software and systems for small- to medium-sized retailers. The company can provide hardware, software, installation, training and support. Call 860-840-4443 or visit www.camcommerce.com for more information.
CAP Automation has been developing retail management software since 1978. According to the company, its Windows application, SellWise, was the only product to receive a five-star rating by CPA Software News in 2000 and 2001. SellWise is currently being used by more than 100 wine and spirit retailers. The system provides POS, inventory control, customer tracking, order/receive, tag and barcode printing and back office reporting. New features include touchscreen support, hot keys and report customization. Prices for the software start at $2,000. Visit the company’s website, www.capautomation.com, for a demo or call 800-826-5009.
Cetech’s system, Spirits, was designed specifically for New York State wine and beverage alcohol retailers and has been running in stores since 1987. Because Cetech uses open source technology, Spirits runs on all standard Intel and AMD PC platforms under Red Hat Linux, SCO Unix, MS-DOS and all MS-Windows operating systems. Spirits is also Open DataBase Connectivity (ODBC) compliant, meaning that any MS-Windows application, such as word processing, spreadsheets, databases or label programs, has access to Spirits data, with both Read Only and Read/Write versions available. The system has customer-purchasing tracking features and can handle gift cards. The system can operate directly with Intuit’s QuickBooks program. Spirits can be integrated with existing software or Cetech can provide all hardware and accessories. The company now also offers web application development. Spirits single-user software prices start at $1,995. For more information, call 716-634-4575 or email email@example.com.
Having difficulty providing product information about the many hundreds of products you carry in your store to your customers and staff? ChoiceMaster offers a solution that can simplify staff training, build good will with customers and increase sales. With ChoiceMaster running on a touchscreen kiosk in the store, customers can find food pairings, recipes, party planning advice and more. ChoiceMaster can be linked to many POS systems, allowing price and inventory information to be updated automatically. For a demo of how ChoiceMaster works, visit www.ChoiceMaster.com or call 914-763-0891 for more information.
DATABEVERAGE ALCOHOL, LLC
The DataBeverage alcohol system, designed specifically for beverage alcohol operations, is currently being used by over 170 stores. It can be used by single-store locations or by operations with multiple locations. The system is expandable. DataBeverage alcohol can provide a retailer with a complete system, including hardware. Prices start, for a one-register system, at $6,500. A system for a two-register store is priced at $12,000. For more information, call 888-354-6227 or visit www.databeverage alcohol.com.
Datasym Inc. offers total point-of-sale solutions and has recently introduced a number of new products. The company currently has over 500 installations in the retail beverage alcohol market. For more information call 800-265-9930 or visit www.datasym.com.
ENSIGN SYSTEMS, INC.
The company’s POS-IM system for small- and medium-sized retailers is available in both Windows and Mac versions. The company is currently beta-testing a multi-site system that allows several stores to be connected through a central location. This multi-site system retains all POS-IM functions and can also handle transfers between sites, allows users to check the status of an item at another site and features item maintenance by headquarters and a central customer database. The company’s POS-IM Diamond, its newest Mac version, runs on Mac OS-X. The company offers hardware, software, training and support at prices starting around $6,000. Call 800-409-7678 or visit www.ensign.com.
EZ MINER, INC.
This touchscreen POS system runs on a Windows XP platform. The POS system can be run, along with other software modules, such as inventory, or it can handle multiple terminals connected to a back-office computer. The POS system can handle customer-loyalty cards and be used to verify the age of customers by reading the magnetic stripe on their driver’s licenses. The system features credit card processing and EDI ordering capabilities and can be used with wireless devices. Call 1-256-327-5021 or visit www.ezminer.com.
IBM provides a range of technology solutions for the retail store, including the most comprehensive family of retail-hardened, point-of-sale systems with a variety of advanced capabilities at a range of price points. IBM’s POS family includes the affordably priced IBM SurePOS 300, which offers the retail hardening and reliability for which IBM POS systems are known at a competitive price point, while the SurePOS 600 is designed for specialty retailers. IBM also offers a retail kiosk and self-checkout systems. More than 1,000 IBM Business Partners provide specialized software applications for retailers of all types and sizes. IBM provides hardware, software and services for most of the world’s leading retailers. For more information on IBM Retail Solutions, visit www.ibm.com/industries/retail/store.
This company’s award-winning Store Manager touchscreen POS software can be used by single-unit or multi-store beverage retailers. The Store Manager system modules include real-time inventory, purchase orders, customer management, including accounts receivable, and employee management, including time and attendance. Standard features include case and quantity-based pricing, age verification, multiple units of measure, integrated credit/debit and label/shelf tag printing. Store Manager POS can generate over 100 different reports and also interfaces to popular accounting packages. It can be used with handheld inventory devices. System pricing starts at $1,600. Call 800-678-8682 or visit www.infotouch.com.
INNOVATIVE COMPUTER SOLUTIONS (ICS)
ICS has developed programs specifically for beverage alcohol retailers for over 25 years and has systems installed throughout the U.S. The company’s Vision system is a scalable solution for stores ranging from a single register to multiple locations. The POS module within Vision is designed to provide full register capability, including price look-ups, discounts, customer-special pricing, periodic sales and frequent-buyer or award points tracking. The back-office module provides inventory control through the use of sales analysis, purchase history, FIFO inventory level tracking, and physical inventory. Cashier accountability features allow a retailer to track all transactions down to the keystroke. Vision is turnkey and includes hardware installation and training at the store location. Complete systems start under $8,000, including hardware. Hardware can also be purchased separately. Call 732-223-0909 or visit www.vision.biz.
Kronos Inc. is a single-source provider of human resources, payroll, scheduling, and time and labor solutions. More than 20 million people a day use a Kronos solution. For more information, visit www.kronos.com or call (800) 225-1561.
MICROSOFT BUSINESS SOLUTIONS
Microsoft Business Solutions Retail Management System is meant to be a comprehensive solution for independent merchants in the small to lower midmarket segment, retail businesses ranging in size from one store with one register up to 10 multi-register stores. The system includes POS, inventory, pricing, purchasing, customer management, employee management and accounting tools and can be integrated with other Microsoft applications, including Microsoft Business Solutions ERP applications. With Microsoft Retail Management System, Citi Merchant Services offers an integrated online payment processing module and integrated processing for PIN-based debit cards, which can result in substantial savings on credit card processing fees. The Microsoft Retail Management System can expand its capabilities if a retail operation adds stores by providing multi-channel marketing, communications, cross-platform data integration and multi-store building tools. The single package starts at $1,290. Call 800-456-0025 or visit www.microsoft.com/BusinessSolutions/POS.
Founded in 1989, Microstrategy specializes in business-intelligence software for large entities. For more information, call 703-848-8600 or visit www.microstrategy.com.
NCR Corporation’s Retail Solutions Division is a leading global