It may be easy to tune out the technotastic suggestions from your iPod-addicted Gen Y stocker, but when your AARP-age customers start asking for your store's web address, you know it's time to tech up. Not only do your shoppers expect it—a 2007 poll conducted by retail consulting firm Danny Wells & Associates found that 97 percent of natural foods consumers use the Internet daily—but retailing experts say technology can also help your store function more efficiently and profitably. Going digital also means going green. Increasingly, a wired store is a sustainable store, using fewer natural and human resources to conduct business as usual.
But even if you're all aboard the tech train, it can be intimidating to choose the right combination of hardware, software and Internet connectivity for your store. Make a mistake, and you've spent thousands of dollars on a box of CD-sized Frisbees. To help you out, we asked four experts for their technology wish lists—what they'd do if they had to tech up their own stores—and ranked their suggestions by difficulty and expense.
A website can seem like a waste of time and money for stores that don't sell online, but don't discount its less-quantifiable aspects. Retail consultant Danny Wells of Vacaville, Calif.-based Danny Wells & Associates says research shows that three-quarters of natural foods shoppers get their health and nutrition information online. "If a retailer does not have a quality website with a searchable health library, their customers are doing the searching elsewhere."
A website can also cut marketing costs. Simple programs allow you to e-mail newsletters and fliers to your customers and post advertisements and coupons online. "Today, more natural products customers prefer to receive marketing and nutritional information via e-mail than any other way," Wells says.
Websites are also a valuable customer feedback tool, says John Potter, senior retail consultant with Las Vegas-based RTS Consulting, which specializes in retail technology services. "Customers who may not complain at the store may feel more comfortable filling out an online survey or sending an e-mail."
How to: Living Naturally, a Sarasota, Fla.-based tech-solutions provider for naturals retailers, can build and maintain a store website for $99 a month, according to the company. There is also a variety of web hosting services that will sell you a domain name (www.yourstorename.com), build your website and keep it running. Three of the biggest are Go Daddy ($70 to $100 a month per website), Network Solutions ($12 a month; $499 design fee) and Register.com ($99 a month, $785 set-up fee).
Intermediate Computerized scales
Potter recommends automated, networked scales for the backroom or deli, meat and seafood departments—anyplace where you need to weigh, price and package items. Not only do these scales eliminate human error, but they can also be programmed so the labels include regulatory information like country of origin, allergen alerts and nutrition facts, recipes or tips.
How to: For a small store or those with only one location, ITIN Scale Co. of Brooklyn, N.Y., offers scales that operate via a software package running on your desktop computer. Price is around $1,100 a scale. For larger retailers, ADC of Tampa, Fla., has scales that post data over your Internet browser. Prices vary depending on the setup.
Handheld ordering system
Ordering scanners have evolved significantly since the first MSI and Telxon units were introduced 30 years ago. If you tried one of those scanners and didn't like it, the good news is that the new millennium has brought new technology: universal scanners.
Wells recommends universal scanners because they allow you to order from every supplier with a single handheld unit; keep an order history of each item, including minimum order requirements; do inventory; and be alerted when a product is on sale. In addition, the scanners can be programmed with minimum and maximum shelf levels for each product so any employee can order. Overall, they can cut ordering time by 50 percent to 70 percent, he says. "For the average-size natural products retailer, the payback in terms of reduced ordering time and increased efficiencies is usually six weeks."
How to: Most handheld ordering systems are Internet—rather than software—based. If you know how to use a computer, understand how a router and modem operates, and are used to managing inventory, you can usually learn to use a handheld scanner in an hour, says Linda O'Hara of Living Naturally, which sells the ScanGenius ordering system for $124 a month plus a $100 set-up fee. Other options include OrderDog, which offers its iPocket scanner for $79 a month or the more advanced iPal for $149 a month, plus $59 to $99 a month for data-storage services.
Advanced Point-of-sale system
"More and more stores are getting into POS systems because their cost has fallen," O'Hara says. But although POS systems are basically souped-up, computerized cash registers, you're not going to get your money's worth unless you use the system as a data-collection unit as well as something to ring up sales.
POS systems take information from your cash registers and store it in a computer or server. A good POS system can track inventory, manage the books, oversee a back-office merchandise management system and reduce employee theft. "A POS provider becomes the hub of the store and helps squeeze margins," O'Hara says.
Customer-loyalty programs are another big part of a POS system. They can collect a customer's name, address and demographic information and then "slice and dice the data 28 different ways," says Robert Amster, principal with Retail Technology Group in Stamford, Conn. "They can tell you what a customer buys, how much they spend, how frequently they come in the store. They can e-mail someone who hasn't been in the store for 45 days. They can send out targeted mailings about new products to people who buy similar products."
How to: Although setting up a POS can be complicated—some companies that sell the systems install them, too—"most systems are pretty painless to operate," says Potter of RTS Consulting. "It's just a matter of keying in data or importing it."
Amster says one way to minimize tech overload is to buy a POS system as part of a hosted solution. The vendor maintains your store's data on its servers so "the retailer doesn't worry about purchasing, maintaining and backing up computers. You just log onto the [host's] system and you're in business." These systems, offered by vendors such as Celerant Technology, Kliger-Weiss Infosystems, Retail Pro and Microsoft Dynamics RMS, average about $150 per register per month, he says.
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 12/p. 14