Magazine Article | October 1, 2001

A Question Of Reliability

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

When it comes to POS (point of sale) hardware, reliability is always a key consideration for retail IT buyers and a selling point for vendors.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, October 2001

There are so many things to consider when venturing into the world of POS (point of sale) hardware these days. Retailers want to make the most of their technology investments in terms of price, functionality, and integration. But what about reliability? Computers are bound to break down, but how many failures are you willing to accept? There are things that retailers should think about before and after purchasing their IT equipment. Reliability has as much to do with the manufacturer as it does with how the equipment is cared for once it's installed. Mike Layland, assistant VP of retail systems at Service Merchandise Company, Inc. and Mark Scheda, VP of marketing at Ultimate Technology, comment on the reliability issues that retailers face.

How much of a problem is retail POS equipment reliability?

Mike Layland: It is a very visible problem because almost every failure affects the customer. We have done everything we can to limit the number of failures we have, so it is not a huge issue for us; but if it is anything to do with the POS, then you have affected every customer in line. For us, we have the most failures with our automatic signature capture devices, mainly because it's the newest technology we have. The good thing is that the customer might not always see the signature capture problem. If we didn't capture the signature, the device tells the cashier so that we can print a paper receipt for the customer to sign. That's the most common example for us right now.

Do retailers have any control over the reliability of their equipment?

Mark Scheda: They have control on two levels. The first is where they purchase their equipment, and the second is over their retail environments. Where do they install the equipment? Are cable connections exposed? Are they careful about airborne foreign matter that can get into a device and shorten its life? There are also thermal considerations. If silicon-based electronics heat up, they are more susceptible to failure. Retailers shouldn't add to these thermal issues by blocking vents.

Mike Layland: I think so. I think you have to buy the right equipment for the environment and also consider who will be using it. You have to do training so that people know how to treat the equipment as well as preventative maintenance. For example, if you are buying equipment that you want to use outside, you want to buy things that are mobile and can sustain perhaps being dropped. You also have to buy the equipment based on the physical environment. Some might have more dust than others. Retailers might have part-time employees working with the equipment who might not have the same amount of respect for the equipment.

What questions should retailers ask when purchasing new hardware in regard to reliability, and what are the correct answers?

Mark Scheda: They should ask which design processes the vendor used that were aimed at reliability. I wouldn't expect them to ask if we use a ball-bearing fan or gold-plated connections, but an IT director should ask what we do to build reliability into our equipment. A vendor should be able to show a retailer, lab or installation data that proves the reliability of their equipment. The problem is that data is easy to produce in the lab, but it is not always representative of what happens in a retail environment. Manufacturers who do testing that is aimed at reliability will have tested their products a good number of times throughout each generation of equipment. There is also the issue of the experience of development teams. There is a perception among retailers that if they buy from a big company, they are buying experience, but typically good technical people don't stay on the same projects. As products evolve, engineers learn about POS reliability. If a company assigns new people to a design team each time, then you wind up with new reliability concepts. Even in a big company you don't necessarily build that level of experience.

What factors contribute to POS hardware failure?

Mark Scheda: One thing that can affect reliability is whether the hardware is integrated or not. If you have a bunch of pieces plugged in haphazardly and not packaged very carefully, then that can cause reliability issues. The POS system and all its peripherals have cables and connections, and if they are not cared for and carefully arranged, then that can contribute to reliability problems. From a manufacturer's perspective, we might try to design the hardware to minimize the number of internal connections. If we can't avoid using a connector, we might choose a higher quality connector for something that will have a lot of stress. Anytime you have two parts that interface with one another there is a potential reliability problem. With electrical connectors, if they are gold-plated they will last much longer than if they are tin-plated. These are things retailers can ask about and request when purchasing hardware.

What advantages do retailers have in working with a POS-specific hardware vendor rather than a PC hardware vendor?

Mark Scheda: POS-specific hardware companies know that retailers keep their old equipment as long as they can. To ensure that retailers will be able to add more of the same systems years down the line, most POS hardware vendors can hold a product configuration for three to five years. In the PC computer industry, configurations change regularly. Retailers have little chance to buy the same thing six months from now. If one out of 500 stores needs a replacement POS system, retailers don't want to switch hardware models. Going with a POS company ensures they can get the same thing they purchased in the future. Retailers also need to think about things like systems integration and interoperability. Typically POS installations produce integration concerns. POS-specific hardware companies have relationships with software companies. That can be a comfort when it comes time to integrate a system.

Mike Layland: I think the POS vendors are better at integrating all of the devices you need to work with the PC itself. They know POS-specific hardware, (scanners, check readers, etc.) and can make it interface with hardware a retailer already has. I do know that we have discussed POS hardware with a PC vendor in the past. There were many peripherals that they didn't have experience with.

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