By Jane and Larry McGrath
How do you select, install, integrate and maintain the technology you need? How do you learn about and train employees to operate it? How do you handle your email, website, e-store and social media?
If you answered “by the seat of my pants,” “in bits and pieces” or “as I have time” to any of these questions, you’re not alone. Most small retailers tell us that unless there’s a crisis—the computer crashes, a vendor won’t accept phone orders any longer, email stops working—they expect technology to “run itself.”
Unfortunately, no matter how sophisticated information technology (IT) becomes, it still needs a human to decide what to use, how to use it effectively and monitor its success.
Evaluate Your IT Needs
There is no one-size-fits-all technology package for racing retailers. Multiple factors, such as your knowledge and expertise, store size and location, products, and desire to operate online, make your needs unique.
To be sure technology makes your business life easier and more productive, evaluate what you have, decide what you need to add, and develop a plan for how to make it all work together for you.
Because, even if you decide to hire someone to manage and/or implement your IT plan, you have to be able to define what you need the technology to do and what you need the manager/implementer(s) to do.
Start your in-store review with your Point of Sale (POS) system. Does it do everything you need to provide great customer service? For example, does the basic POS system hardware (computer, monitor, cash drawer and receipt printer) and software efficiently handle customer-related tasks such as sales, returns, exchanges and quantity discounts? Is it reliable?
Do you need to add accessories such as a debit/credit card reader to improve service? What about adding a software module to handle unique functions such as promotional sales and manufacturer coupons?
Would it be cost effective to add specialized software such as CRM (Customer Relationship Management) or one of the popular inventory tracking systems? Collecting information with CRM, according to the editors of CRM magazine, “allows customer-facing employees in such areas as sales, customer support and marketing to make quick yet informed decisions on everything from cross-selling and upselling opportunities to target marketing strategies to competitive positioning tactics.” But, they advise, you must know what information you want to collect and how to use it.
And if you’re thinking of adding an inventory tracking component and more advanced technology like a bar code reader, Bob Parker of IDC Manufacturing Insights asked, “Do you have good part numbering and stocking locations? Do you have well-defined and understood processes for receiving, put away, pick, move and ship? Do you employ good control mechanisms like regular cycle counts?”
If these “fundamentals are right” and you have the volume to support it, it’s worth looking into he said.
Is there other hardware and/or software that would make in-store operations more efficient and more cost effective?
How old is your office hardware? “Smart organizations set PC service lives at three or four years,” said TechRepublic.com’s Erik Eckel. The reason: Retaining PCs longer than that often results in repair and support costs that meet or exceed the price of new systems.
“Older and obsolete hardware is less efficient, increases downtime likelihood, feeds staff and customer frustration, endangers sales and threatens other lost opportunities,” he added.
When evaluating your software, such as the operating system, office productivity applications, accounting programs, security tools, and utilities, the first question to ask: Is it properly licensed?
Next, do you use all the software you have loaded or is it just taking up space? And, do you use it effectively? For example, recent research shows that office staff understand less than 20 percent of the available features in the software they use. This means 80 percent of the features—which are designed to save time and increase productivity—aren’t used.
Are the applications you use for functions such as word processing, bookkeeping, vendor collaboration and desktop publishing reliable? Do they make it easy to move information and data between and among programs?
Could a new application increase your efficiency? If so, could you save valuable hard drive space and money by taking advantage of the newer cloud-based software that resides on the Internet and is available on a subscription basis? For example, Microsoft (Office 365), Adobe (Creative Suite) and Intuit (Quickbooks) offer cloud-based software.
The advantages of cloud-based software are that it’s kept current with automatic revisions, security updates and new features; using your security code, it can be accessed from any computer; you save cash flow by subscribing instead of paying an up-front purchase cost; off-site secure data storage is a good backup.
Would adding components to your POS system to handle office tasks such as tracking sales data, purchasing and receiving be cost effective? For example, QuickBooks Point of Sale, an adaptation for POS systems that run on Windows Vista/7/XP, allows you to track sales, customers and inventory easily and quickly.
“A common tech mistake businesses make,” said TechRepublic.com’s Eckel: “They fail to standardize hardware components and software applications, where possible. The result is a mishmash of components that complicate troubleshooting, repair and deployment, and require companies to support a variety of programs with different license terms and renewal dates. Incompatibilities often result.” In other words, fragmented technology costs you money, time and valuable data.
A note to Microsoft Windows XP users: You will need to change your operating system by April 2014, when Microsoft ends its support for Windows XP. In addition, some older software won’t work with the new operating system you adopt.
eCommerce & Social Media
“Creating and operating an ecommerce website or online store gets easier all the time,” said David Mercer, of SEO Entrepreneur. But, it still takes tech capabilities, money and time.
If you’re entering the ecommerce market, you’ll probably need additional computer power and storage capacity. Will it be more cost effective and secure to use one of the many hosting companies or add to your hardware?
Can you add ecommerce capabilities to your existing website or would it be better to build the site from scratch? To help you decide, check out at least a couple of the most widely used shopping carts and ecommerce store builders, such as BigCommerce, Pinnacle Cart and Shopify.
Evaluating your needs for using social media—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs—requires you to ask questions about how much time you have rather than hardware and software. Do you have time every day to interact in your virtual communities?
Just putting up a Facebook fan page, writing a blog or posting an occasional Tweet won’t boost business if your followers don’t believe you are interested in interacting with them. In fact, Matt Mullenweg, founder of the blogging platform Wordpress, lists “not participating in comments” as a surefire way to kill a community.
Develop an Implementation Plan
Once you have a handle on the technology you need to make the store successful in 2013, the question is: Who is going to make it happen?
Consider the risks and rewards of these options.
Option #1: You do it all.
Although you have a wide variety of responsibilities pulling you in many directions, if technology is your priority and interest, a good case can be made for you to be the IT person. For example, when you have a problem, you don’t have to make a call and wait hours or days for a call-back or on-site visit. You know what to do and can get it done without a serious disruption in business. In addition, you don’t have extra salaries or contract fees and you maintain control of sales and customer data.
However, it demands your constant attention and leaves little time for activities like selling, ordering and marketing.
There are free or low-cost solutions available that can help diminish some of the time demands. For example, a social media manager such as HootSuite allows you to manage all of your social network accounts on one site so you don’t have to constantly monitor them. But, you still have to track down the “solution” and learn how to use and implement it.
Option #2: Hire specialists to help.
If you want to handle some technology pieces, but don’t have the time or desire to do everything, assembling a team of specialists can be a good solution.
“Small businesses need knowledgeable, trusted technology partners who are proficient with current technologies and willing to help learn their industry’s operations requirements,” said TechRepublic.com’s Eckel. The result, he added, “is almost always more cost-effective, more efficient, more profitable operations for the client.”
Your hardware and software vendors can supply the names of “certified” product specialists in your geographic area. These specialists, in addition to extra training, have better access to technical support you might need.
Retailers who hire specialists admit that there is a tendency to try to “get by” with a minimal number, particularly when the budget is tight. But, they warn, insufficient staff will affect your ability to provide quality service and disrupt the store’s ability to make money.
Option #3: Outsource.
If you and your employees don’t have the time or skills to perform technology-related tasks, attempting to do them may take longer than necessary and take time away from what you and your staff do best, according to Michaele Curtis of Demand Media. “For example, for every half hour your salesman spends struggling with a computer/printer setup or installing new software, he may be losing a sale of your product or services,” said Curtis.
That’s why many retailers decide to outsource their technology needs to a local computer specialist, a vendor or a Managed Service Provider (MSP). Outsourcing allows you to turn over everything to those with superior technological capabilities so that you can focus on the business. And, consolidating all your services with one company, rather than several specialists, may save you time and money.
Nevertheless, outsourcing your technology is not a panacea. Anytime you give someone else responsibility for an aspect of your business, there is risk involved. For example: Will they do what they are supposed to do? Will their response time—for everything from routine questions to business-stopping computer crashes—be acceptable? Will your data be secure?
Technology has an increasingly important role in retail and the health of your business depends on your creating an effective way to manage it.