Epos can be a great asset, but what happens when it goes wrong? Aidan Fortune asks retailers for their advice

Any retailer serious about their business knows that in order for it to be successful, they need a quality epos system. Aside from providing a quicker service and reducing pricing errors, a decent epos system will also aid with stock control, allow a more comprehensive breakdown of sales, and help staff better manage age-related sales.

Epos use within the convenience sector is continually growing. According to Spedi Software business manager Koby Sunther, an increase in the number of suppliers providing software to smaller, unaffiliated stores has led to a rise in users. He estimates that between the beginning of 2010 and spring of 2011, the penetration rate of convenience stores using epos increased from 25% to just under 50%.

However, alongside the benefits of epos there is a downside to becoming reliant on technology. What do you do when it breaks down? No system is infallible and retailers need to plan in case their epos system leaves them in the lurch. The following case studies show what can go wrong and the best way to ensure a drama doesn’t turn into a crisis.

Lesson one: Research suppliers thoroughly

Retailer Elizabeth Brown of CH Brown & Sons in Birmingham advises those considering installing epos to avoid purchasing a system simply because it comes from a well-known brand and should make sure they thoroughly research any product and provider before committing themselves. “I installed an epos system manufactured by a big-name company and it was a disaster,” she says.

Elizabeth explains that the company simply didn’t have enough resources in her area to cope when she needed help. “They made promises that they just couldn’t keep and when things went wrong, which they always will, it was very difficult to get someone out to help us fix the problem.”

She urges retailers to weigh up all the options before choosing a provider. “We now use a local epos provider that can get someone to us within hours if there is a problem,” says Elizabeth. “I’d love for there never to be a problem with my epos system, but that’s not really going to happen. Even the best systems will encounter problems; it’s how you and your provider deal with them that matters.”

Elizabeth also recommends that store owners speak to their peers about the systems they use and the experiences they have had. “Go to your local cash and carry and talk to other retailers,” she says. “They will be able to tell you honestly how their system fares. The best recommendations come from other retailers. They know what store owners need and the potential pitfalls that exist.”

How to get the best from your investment:

PCMS group sales and marketing director Richard Goodall offers some advice to help make your epos experience run smoothly 

Research the system and the benefits it offers. Epos provides much more than just a till function and can operate as a business management tool from assisting with inventory management and stock ordering through to financial reporting. Take time to find the solution that will offer you the most value in running your business. For instance, epos has also been shown to increase income by 3% through better stock availability and promotions. While purchasing an epos system may seem like a significant investment, it can pay for itself fairly quickly 

Don’t let cost rule your decision-making. In the face of massive competition from the multiples, convenience retailers can learn from their extensive use of technology to sustain and grow their business. For convenience stores, investment is the key to survival and investment in an epos solution is the key to unlocking the full potential of any store 

Understand the ongoing support package you’ll be offered. Downtime hits the bottom line instantly, so it’s important to have a support package that covers the hours you work, is reliable, and has excellent resolution times to minimise the hassle for you 

Take advantage of the training on offer from the epos provider for you and your staff. As a result, you’ll be getting the maximum return on investment from day one 

Use it to its full capacity. Make sure you’re using all the functionality that the epos system provides it could hold the key to additional profit for your business, for example by identifying slow-moving stock lines.

Alec Gardner of East Bergholt Post Office & Stores in Suffolk says that epos is not an area that retailers should scrimp on. “Our provider isn’t necessarily the cheapest, but you do get what you pay for,” he says. “One that costs less may not be as quick to act. Any time we’ve had a problem, they’ve got it fixed within a matter of hours.

“If some providers cost more than others, it’s hopefully for a good reason,” adds Alec. “Look at a couple of providers and see what you get for your money. Those extra few pounds a month may be the difference between your epos system being down for an hour and a full day. It’s a simple equation for retailers the longer the epos system is down, the more money and business you’re losing.”

Lesson two: Get a copy of the contract

Once you have decided on a provider, it’s important to get everything they have promised down in writing. Failure to do so could lead to difficult situations in the future, as Chris Pollard of Barlby Village Stores in Selby, North Yorkshire, found out.

His current system doesn’t support Nisa promotional downloads so rather than having them automatically updated on his epos, he has to input them manually every time.

“It takes me 30 hours every three weeks to input them,” he says. “And one of the reasons I bought this system was the fact that they promised they would be able to sort this out, or offer me a refund.

“The current set-up just isn’t feasible computer systems are meant to work for you, not the other way around,” he says. “I’m a slave to my epos right now and I want to change it so I can get a system that I know will support those downloads.”

However, Chris is finding it difficult to get out of his current contract. “This has been going on for almost a year ago and they’ve now said that the promotional download issue is no longer a priority for them, but still haven’t given me a refund,” he says. “This was part of my contract, but they haven’t let me see a full copy of it so I have to wait until they’re ready to remove the system.”

Chris was let down further when his supplier failed to ensure that all products in the store would scan through the system. “It’s something that some suppliers do to make the deal more lucrative,” he says. “It will save you hundreds of hours’ work, but although my current supplier said they would do this, they only did 60% of the products. It caused massive hassle whenever unscanned lines were brought up to the till.”

He advises other retailers not to make the same mistakes he did and demand a copy of the contract before signing and to keep it safe. “I’d urge any retailer looking to invest in an epos system to make sure they get everything promised in writing and that they get a full copy of the final contract,” adds Chris. “It may seem like straightforward advice, but it can be easily overlooked and it will be of benefit if something goes wrong in the future.”

Lesson three: Consider your back-up

Dilip Patel of Londis in Clapham, South London, has problems with the electricity flow to his store and up until last year the epos system would break down if there was even a slight fluctuation to the power supply. This caused him no end of problems as it meant his tills were unable to process transactions on a regular basis.

“It could happen at any time the power to the system would fail and it would then turn off, leaving us unable to serve customers,” he explains.

It wasn’t until his supplier Repos recommended that he install a battery pack into the epos system that his problems were solved. He credits his provider with thinking outside of the box to find the solution and not dismissing him like other companies had in the past.

“We’ve had several suppliers over the years, but a solution was never recommended by any of them,” says Dilip. “It was such a simple solution to a major problem that often crippled us for hours on end. There may be hundreds of other retailers experiencing the same thing and not realising how easily it can be fixed.

“Epos keeps the whole store running and for it to just suddenly click off would be a disaster,” he adds. “It was the only piece of machinery in the store affected by the fluctuations, but it is vital to the store’s running.”

Lesson four: Work in partnership with your supplier

Dilip also built up a strong working relationship with his current supplier and believes that a bit of flexibility on both sides can work to everyone’s benefit.

“During the heavy snow falls last winter we had to have some work done on our epos, but the engineers weren’t able to drive to the store because of the icy roads,” explains Dilip. “We could have demanded that they come down to fix it, but that wouldn’t have helped anyone and would have created a bad atmosphere between us.

“Instead they talked us through the installation of a new piece of machinery for the system over the phone,” he says. “It wasn’t ideal as none of us are experts, but we needed the system back up and running as soon as possible.”

If a retailer can think ahead and follow this sage advice, they can reap the benefits of a fully functional epos system and cope better with any problems that may crop up.