Natural Foods Merchandiser

Computers will work for you if you work first

It?s a scenario Matt Martincich knows by heart: The computers crash, and sales at his Bozeman, Mont., natural foods store come to a halt. Cashiers can?t ring up a sale until a manual cash register is pulled out, and Martincich then waits for hours on the phone for tech support.

It?s happened at his Montana Harvest store as many as 15 times in the past two years. ?Here you are trying to make sales. You?ve got customers. You have to deal with the situation, and it?s kind of embarrassing,? he said. ?It?s humiliating.?

Like many natural foods store owners, Martincich realized too late that his store has the wrong computer system. Retailers often spend thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands, on point-of-sale computer systems only to find out the products don?t do everything they want.

Yet throwing it all in the trash and starting from scratch isn?t necessarily an option, especially when valuable store data are inside those systems and cannot always be transferred to a new product.

What is a retailer to do? If you can, try to stick with it for a while, keep a positive attitude and collaborate with the vendor to best make the system work for you.

About half the time, retail computer problems are resolvable, said Dick Calio, owner of R.J. Calio Consulting, a retail technology-consulting firm in South Windsor, Conn.

But what about the other half of the time, when the computer system has simply become too expensive to keep? Sometimes, a retailer has no other choice but to junk the thing and start the process of buying another system.

That was the case for Dan Chapman, owner of Sunrise Health Foods in Chicago. He spent a year trying to work with his software vendor after struggling to make the computer software balance his cash register drawers and properly collect taxes. He hired a consultant. He held group meetings. He did research.

Finally, the accounting errors simply cost his company too much money. Despite a $100,000 investment in the computer system, Chapman got rid of it and went back to manual cash registers.

?When you find out it?s not going to work, there?s disappointment that you?ve wasted time, if not money,? Chapman said. A year later, he found a new computer system that suits Sunrise stores just fine. Chapman?s advice to other retailers: Be very cautious when purchasing a computer system to avoid losing a hefty investment. Do your homework.

Figure out beforehand why you want a computer system and what specifically you want it to do. Calio suggested creating a list of what you want to get out of your computer system, whether it?s point-of-sale, customer tracking, purchase orders or compatibility with other store systems. Involve other key people in your store to ensure they will be comfortable using such a system.

Calio recommended getting computers with touch screens because they can reduce cashier training by 35 percent. They also allow retailers to customize buttons to represent specific products, speeding up transactions for open-stock departments or small items that can?t be scanned. Online credit card processing capabilities are also helpful because they dramatically speed processing times, although the service costs about 4 to 5 cents per transaction.

Next, send that wish list of computer abilities to prospective vendors, evaluate their responses and invite the best three to demonstrate their software. Make sure you have an agenda for the demonstration so that the vendor shows you what is important to you and not just what?s important to the vendor. Score each system against your initial list of needs, and then schedule a second demonstration with the one or two best-matching vendors before making a final decision, Calio said.

Here?s some advice from other retailers:

If you?ve never picked out a computer system before, consider getting outside help early in the process. Peter Lassen did just that when he decided to computerize his five Lassen?s Natural Foods stores in Southern California. He paid a consultant $5,000 to help him figure out what he needed, and then to interview and select a vendor.

All told, he spent $450,000 for the computer system and training, but he said the extra money for the consultant?s hand-holding was worth it. ?If you?re going to spend that much money, it?s better to have someone who has gone through this whole experience before,? Lassen said.

Get as much training as possible before buying. If you don?t want to hire a consultant, then try to get as much up-front training from the vendors as possible. Some software companies offer three-day training sessions at their home offices. ?These systems are so complex and have so many features, it?s hard to be shown everything [by a vendor] in a two- to three-hour period,? Lassen said. ?Dealers want to sell you the hardware but don?t know the program as well as they should.?

Talk to other retailers who know the product. Chapman paid to spend a day with the owner of another store that had deployed a system he was interested in. He was able to spend the day watching employees use the system in a real-life environment, asking questions and experimenting with it firsthand.

Improvise an IT staff. Before you make a purchase, decide who on your staff is interested and tech-savvy enough to be the resident information technology expert. That someone often must be willing to input inventory and other store data into the computer as well.

Make technical support a priority. Martincich said his current computer system, an outdated DOS program, no longer offers any kind of tech support to customers. Often, he?s faced with troubleshooting failures alone. ?It could be a good system, but when you need some help, they aren?t around,? he said.

He?ll put customer support at the top of the list, he promised, when selecting another system.

Click here to order a copy of Market Overview 2004.

Jennifer Alsever is a Denver freelance writer. Reach her at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 6/p. 34, 36

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.