Don't Buy That New POS System Just Yet!

Don't Buy That New POS System Just Yet!

By Robynn Shrader

We have engaged in lively discussion via listserves, CCMA and other forums about the Point of Sale (POS) needs of the food co-op sector and the challenges that many stores face with a lack of support and innovation specific to our needs. The CoCoITT (Information Technology) team began to address this earlier this year, and we have some significant progress to report.

While attending the Retail Systems Conference as a part of our June meeting in Chicago, we noticed that everyone was developing web browser based database applications, including POS systems. Afterwards, the tech team at the Wedge gave it a try, using ASP (active server page). It proved so promising that within two days, they had gone from an initial "exploratory" mode into full development mode. Within three weeks, the basis of a POS system front end was written from scratch. At this point, the "development model" has two versions. At this pace of development, the beta version should roll out for floor testing within a month. Testing and further development of this system is the crux of our next CoCoITT meeting in Minneapolis mid-October.

The system is an open source application that integrates data. It queries databases real time as needed, runs very fast, and has all the basic functionality expected of a cash register. Since the operational tables (products, list of cashiers, etc.) are completely customizable, it can in principle be made to run concurrently with any system. This means it can be tested and phased in, instead of requiring a comprehensive storewide upgrade. The web-based application means that it can run on any system that supports a browser. In addition, API calls are generic enough that it can run with most of the usual POS hardware, independent of manufacturer.

Specific POS issues motivating and guiding this project have been implemented as features:

  • complete customization of member functions, such as membership sales, member specials, member discounts, and coupons;
  • customized electronic gift certificates;
  • electronic refund/balance tracking and in-store credits;
  • integrated MC/Visa/EBT;
  • reliable tracking of all activity on each register;
  • more specific handling of tenders prompt for approvals, including enforced check franking;
  • customized discount policies for staff;
  • ability to function in "stand alone" during server crashes;
  • quick recovery from server crashes without loss of data;
  • ability to switch seamlessly from "stand alone" to network mode without corruption of data;
  • integration with all other databases where relevant;
  • generic API calls to work with most brands of I/O hardware. One further goal is to port it to PHP/MySql/Linux, thus making it completely open and independent from a certain software giant.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? The progress made by the Wedge team is extraordinary, and the rest of the CoCoITT group is geared up and ready to expand the development and make this a tested, viable food co-op POS system that will be available to all interested co-ops within the next year. This is no small feat. At our October meeting, we will also be addressing the issues of service and support for co-ops who purchase the system.

It is very important that the CoCoITT team be able to focus on the development work at hand, so we respectfully request your patience in waiting for further information. We will launch this system via NCGA and will provide the necessary decision-making information to interested parties when it is complete.

NCGA will continue to report on the progress of this work. Don't invest in some other POS system just yet!

NCGA Sponsors Food Co-op Strategy Group

On September 10, a group of co-op managers convened in Chicago to strategize about some of the complex questions facing food co-ops. Agenda topics included marketing/strategic positioning; structural issues; finance/capitalization; store operations; development; and technology.

This is a pivotal time for food co-ops, as we attempt to collaborate and leverage our commonality enough to keep pace with the chain store competition around us. Either we will effectively tap into the advantages that these chains enjoy, or we will continue to fall behind in the critical markers of profitability and market share.

This meeting was cut abruptly short by the tragedies of September 11; however, NCGA will work to sponsor the continued discussion of these issues, utilizing the talent within our sector and seeking expertise from outside. Our intent is to regularly convene a group of talented thinkers to devise strategies to combat our most pressing concerns. The product of these sessions should prove valuable to many of the organizations and individuals working to support the food co-op movement.

Participants in the first Chicago meeting came at their own co-op's expense. NCGA is grateful to the National Co-op Bank Development Corporation for their offer to financially support the convening of these strategy sessions in the coming year. NCBDC's support will strengthen NCGA's efforts to provide a catalyst and structure for national integration of all our available resources.

We have more necessary objectives than resources with which to accomplish them. We need the brightest and most creative solutions to our very real challenges in order to flourish as a movement. Look for reports on the progress from these sessions over the coming months.

See other articles from this issue: #097 November - December - 2001