The shopkeeper's guide to smart technology

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The shopkeeper's guide to smart technology
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Shop owners need no longer be scared of etailers and smartphones.

[This article was originally published in CRN Australia magazine]

Tina Fox is a textiles designer and founder of Mumsy, which runs out of a pop-up shop in Crows Nest on Sydney’s leafy lower north shore.

Although her business, part of a global trend to reintroduce creative spaces to retail districts, may have existed for only a few months she has the same problems of any shop owner.

The former architect has to receipt sales, store cash until banking it, and keep the books. And she shares the shop, its clerking and banking, with three craftspeople.

She has suppliers for textiles and paints and the utilities to pay. She says the complexities of a traditional retail solution mean they put technology in the too-hard basket, literally.

“We don’t take credit cards – we’ve lost some sales because of that – we just take cash and put it in a bucket under the counter,” Fox says.

They run creative workshops but can’t recognise a repeat customer in their system to send electronic direct mail for training courses or collections openings.

Although Fox won’t be in the shop for long – the council is redeveloping it – she would like to continue in a conventional business and encourage repeat custom.

But her collective is ahead of three-quarters of Australian small business in some ways, according to the June 2012 Sensis Social Media Report, with presences at Facebook and Tumblr, and Fox’s site links to her Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook and blog.

As an entrepreneur who balances a family – she has a young child and another on the way – supporting business technologies must be easy, Fox says.

What if she could track customer spending, offer loyalty discounts, provide multi-channel fulfillment online and in-store, or invite customers to her new shop when it reopens elsewhere?

“We’re missing out hugely,” Fox admits. “Anything that was a bit more automated would take the work away from us.“

"There’s loads of festivals around and we could market our workshops much wider and loudly and we could link up with markets. Because the same person isn’t in the shop every day we don’t have a record of total sales."

She has turned away custom for lack of change and says, “having some kind of credit card system for people would be good”.

“One guy who came in – a repeat buyer who had bought a gift the other week – he was very busy and had a lot of bags and wanted to grab something quickly, and even though there was the cash machine around the corner it didn’t happen.”

Retail cloud

But a new generation of retail technologies could bring sophisticated solutions into such itinerant or intermittent businesses and provide value to shopkeepers of any stripe.

One such solution is Kounta – a cloud retail “platform of sale” that plugs into cloud accounting solutions such as MYOB and Xero and drives Epson receipts printers.

The demands of pop-up shop owners are common to a business of any scale, especially those who want to work smarter with their customers, says Kounta chief executive officer Nick Cloete.

“In the past, staff behind the register were taking the order and waving goodbye to the customer and hoping they come back,” says Cloete. “What we find with the mobile tablet cloud technology is you have an interaction at the point of sale, rather than [just] a transaction so you have a much bigger reach outside the door with mobile payments and transactions and then anywhere within your store, not just at the register.”

He says Kounta communicates with multiple endpoints, including smartphones and the company has forged an alliance with Epson for its printers to act as servers in shops, upending the traditional retail IT architecture.

“The nice thing about these printers is, for integrators it’s easy for them to make their own app – to be able to put a retail hospitality app on printers that the reseller can offer to their end user.”

Shop owners are right to feel outgunned by savvy consumers, who run technology rings around them, found the Economist Intelligence Unit in its recent “The i Factor” report.

“Showrooming”, where a customer compares rival price offers on their connected handheld device often while experiencing the product in another store, is of particular concern to retailers.

“Armed with smartphones and wider broadband access and coverage, consumers boast unprecedented price transparency and can call on customer reviews with the swipe of a barcode or the tap of a touchscreen,” The Economist says. “The shopping trip does not start on the high street, but rather during the lunch hour at work, at the bus stop or even in bed.

"When customers do hit the shops, more than ever they expect to know what is in stock and demand the ability to reserve it, pay for it and go.”

Consider the morning coffee ritual. As Cloete notes, Kounta allows the customer to order before they get to the barista, pay while they wait, have their coffee added to their loyalty card and get moving before others even fumble for change.

Or in a fashion shop, a customer scans their items, pays on their smartphone, and walks out – but the transaction won’t end there.

“Merchants can set up their own loyalty and rewards programs and market those straight to the customer” on the spot or at a later date, Cloete says. It sends electronic receipts and dovetails with MYOB and Xero.

Kounta’s application programming interface allows developers to write software for it or integrate legacy systems. And there’s an opportunity to upgrade ancient cash registers and arcane processes to deal with the realities of mobile e-commerce.

Craig Heckenberg, business unit manager with Epson Australia, says the PoS specialist tries to simplify retail solutions for its partners to make it easier for them to consult on the business.

And for their retail customers looking at embarking on a cycle of hardware replacement the company offers some powerful solutions around printers and tablet devices.

“Epson has developed e-pos technology that interfaces with the API and receives extensible markup language data and prints a receipt and validates coupons," Heckenberg says.

Upgrading requires downloading plugins at the customer’s shop to the Epson TM-i intelligent printer that communicates wirelessly or over Ethernet to cash drawers and secondary printers, such as those in the kitchen.

And cloud-based deployments are beginning to gain favour in the retail sector, especially amongst small and nimble players less encumbered with legacy technology and practices.

“We’re seeing more of the smaller chain of retailers moving quicker than the larger retailers due to the (latter’s) larger infrastructure to consider,” notes Heckenberg.

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