Whether you are looking to add more consumer functionality to the POS (point of sale) or slim down your network to thin client, stability should be your first concern.
The role of point of sale (POS) devices is changing. Consequently, manufacturers are offering retailers more options and more sophisticated features. "A few years ago, the POS terminal would have been viewed as simply a data input device that retailers use to collect customer and transaction information. Now it is becoming a device where data can be shared in both directions," said Mark Scheda, VP of marketing at Ultimate Technology (Victor, NY). Retailers now communicate information via the POS in the form of coupon offers or advertisements displayed on full-color screens. Some retailers are turning their cash register screens around to allow customers to use them as kiosks. Wireless connectivity is moving registers around the store or outside, and in some cases, customers hold the scanning devices in their own hands. "Manufacturers have seen the demand for more customer-facing technology at the POS and are responding with solutions like self-checkout and Internet shopping kiosks in the stores," said Carolyn Rollins, director of marketing and product planning at Datasym (Brantford, Ontario).
All of this expanded POS functionality brings with it the need to collect and understand more information - not just typical sales transactions. POS hardware and software need to facilitate the dissemination of that collected information throughout the enterprise and in an organized fashion through automatically generated reports and analysis. "As the POS collects more information, it can feed many other areas of the business," Rollins said. And as the information becomes more complex, so does the path it takes to get into corporate hands.
POS - Not Just A Computer
Times have changed since the days when a retailer could purchase 500 PCs and maintain a reliable enterprise network less than a year later. Retailers are starting to see the value that purchasing POS hardware from a POS vendor can add. "I think retailers have stopped thinking of POS hardware as a commodity. They can't solve their POS problems by simply buying computers and monitors to act as the POS," Scheda said. "The initial cost might be less than that of a POS hardware vendor, but that says nothing about the issues that will arise after the fact." Issues such as configuration stability and universal system upgrades can cause huge IT headaches down the road. Retailers need to understand the value of implementing POS hardware designed with the demanding retail environment and functionality in mind. It is not found with a general PC.
Put The POS On A Diet With Thin Client
Once retailers understand there is a difference between POS and PC, other decisions such as system networking arise. Those thinking of a thin client infrastructure might hesitate at first, but the cost savings of a network-based system will be seen in decreased maintenance issues and the total cost of ownership. Retail requirements are complicated by so many functions and peripherals, and so the industry hesitated when thin client terminals first arrived on the scene. Because extensive transaction processes require speed and consistency of a networked POS infrastructure, the lack of bandwidth reliability was also a concern at the time. As bandwidth increases and thin client technology becomes proven in other vertical markets, retailers are taking a closer look at the option.
Vendors do warn, however, that there is such a thing as too thin. "If a terminal loses its access to the host, then you run the risk of not serving your customers," Rollins said. Scheda agreed that, "A true thin client provides little processing power at the client device and contains almost no persistent storage. This kind of POS terminal needs the host to survive." Both vendors suggest that retailers find some middle ground by staying lean on the terminal side, but keeping some local processing and storage. "A diskless network appliance is an attractive alternative to both PC and pure thin client technology in terms of performance, reliability, and economics," Scheda said. "Five years into the future I think the options will change as the bandwidth, security, and reliability of WANs (wide area networks) improve."