Careful consideration of needs and options should precede buying a new POS system.
Due diligence, says Rob Andreottola. Homework, says Mary Beth Flowers. Andreottola is chief executive officer of the Madison, Ga.-based Don Pablo's Mexican chain; Flowers is foodservice supervisor of administration and technology for Alexandria (Va.) City Public Schools. While their terminology differs, their recommendations boil down to the same thing when selecting a point-of-sales system: Do either one, but do it.
The result of inadequate preparation--specifically an ill-fitting POS system--can be painful, as many operators are finding out.
Andreottola was first introduced to a POS system was when he worked for the Houlihan's chain in 1984. There were many painful experiences. In those years, the technology was not so refined or dependable "and it crashed on you a lot," he says. Data from an entire day's business could be lost and managers would be ringing up numbers from sales slips all night, says Andreottola.
The technology has improved considerably since then, but a lot of work still must precede selecting a system, says Andreottola.
Even for the not so technically challenged, the task might seem daunting. But, say Andreottola, Flowers and several providers, there are simple guidelines one can use that help ensure the POS system chosen will be a good fit for a foodservice operation. The common thread is common sense.
Have a clear picture of your own operation and then "prioritizing what you want" from a POS system, says Andreottola.
When the Alexandria, Va., public schools recently decided to install a new POS system, "we did a lot of advanced thinking to know our own operation" even before starting on the homework, says Flowers.
The Alexandria school system, with an enrollment of 11,250 in grades K-12, feeds 7,500 students a day in 17 schools. The two primary goals for a new POS system were "to increase the speed of the line to give the children more time to eat," and to reduce labor by automating some of the counting functions, says Flowers.
Specifically, school officials were looking for a system that at the end of the day would "tally all the meals served and under what category" --namely, which students received free or reduced meal benefits, information staff needs to claim reimbursement from the state, says Flowers.
"We also wanted something that is easy for the cashier and easy for the children to use," says Flowers. "And we were looking for a product that cut redundancy, so when one part went down, we could get back up right away and continue with minimal downtime."
With the new system, Alexandria students enter the PIN numbers, which they have from the first day in kindergarten through high school, on a pen pad near the cash register. With help from inventive teachers, even kindergartners and special education students can enter their PINs with little or no problem.
The cashier then hits one key to access a student's prepaid account or determine whether the student receives a free or reduced-price meal.
Generally commercial foodservice operators are looking to a POS system to increase revenues and profit margins, to cater to customer tastes and encourage their return visits and to track employee performance, says Scott Martiny, vice president, sales and marketing for a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based provider.
But operators may have more specific needs to be addressed by a POS system.
For instance, flexibility may be an important consideration for a foodservice operator in a university student union, says Jim Sukenik, president of a Michigan hospitality-consulting firm. If a POS station can only be located in one spot, with no other way to connect data and power lines, then there is no latitude to move or add positions to accommodate student traffic, he says.
Get to know prospector providers, says Andreottola, and don't be in a hurry.
It took Don Pablo's 18 months of due diligence before deciding on its now two-year-old system for its 135 units ago, says Andreottola. Earlier in his career, when he worked for Overland Park, Kan.-based Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar, it took that chain two years to select a system, he says.
Flowers recommends seeking out local providers or least ones that service locally. That way, she says, operators can make site visits to see the systems in actual use. "Seeing it on paper is one thing," she says. "Seeing it in operation you can talk to operators and get a real feel for what it can do for you."
Then "ask hard questions," she says, such as what is a provider's track record. How long has the provider been in business? Who are the customers?
"There have been a lot of fire sales in the last six or seven years," says Martiny. "Make sure you pick a winning horse, or at least one that is going to be in the race."
In addition to a company's stability, it should "be willing to partner with you versus just being a vendor," says Andreottola. "Choose a system that will address the long-term vision of your company," rather than making a selection "based on a short-term, quick fix," he says.
To do this, he says, determine whether a company "comes out periodically with new technology that can be upgraded at minimal expense."
The POS system selected by Don Pablo's is not linked to its back-of-the-house operation, says Andreottola. The chain is now working with its POS provider to bridge that connection.
HOW STRONG IS THE SUPPORT?
Martiny further cautions that some "dealers tend to change from selling one product now to selling another a year from now. It's very difficult to support that many technologies and stay current." Technical-support availability is a crucial consideration. "If you did a survey of 100 operators, 80% would say their No. 1 complaint is lack of support," he says.
Many operators are investing in systems only to find the technical support inadequate, he says.
It is also important for operators to look beyond initial costs and to be aware of the ongoing costs "of keeping a system running and for training so it can be used as effectively as possible," says Martiny. He claims upfront purchase price "is only 20% of the total cost of ownership."