The Internet has led to vast improvements in the efficiency of POS hardware
The Internet has led to vast improvements in the efficiency of POS hardware and software deployment, but is it wise to take the task in-house?
Store-level technology deployment was once among the most daunting and expensive projects a retail IT manager faced. While the task remains daunting for many reasons, it's far less so in the age of broadband, and even less expensive now that images and support can be accessed and distributed remotely. That said, handling enterprisewide POS hardware and software rollouts is still a logistically challenging exercise, and one that's most often best left to experts.
Resources Are Directly Related To Rollout Speed
The expense associated with do-it-yourself rollouts, including maneuvering employees through a tricky schedule — hampered by narrow windows of store downtime — has proven more than anticipated for many midsize to large retailers. John Pruban, president at retail technology deployment and service provider tekservePOS, says sizable retailers that choose to roll out their own store-level technology are effectively committing to launching a new business. "In some cases it could make sense, if the retailer has a long-term plan for the employees it needs to physically roll out the technology. But to do it in a timely fashion and with minimal disruption, you need a lot of trained people," says Pruban. "If the human resources you're calling on at the rollout stage are limited, you're potentially restricting the speed of your rollout due to the few, typically nighttime hours available at each store." While Pruban doesn't discount the notion of a self-managed rollout entirely, he says most retailers recognize the value of partnering with efficient deployment experts and go that route.
Scot DeLancey is manager of POS software product management for NCR. He echoes Pruban's advice on outsourcing POS deployment for even more reasons. "There are so many issues retailers have to consider, including PCI [payment card industry] data security standards, statutory issues, and state laws, not to mention cost prohibition. Retailers need help taking a fluid approach and making sure stores are responsible for sales, not IT," says DeLancey. Outsourced deployment service providers like tekservePOS and NCR are usually composed of large, mobile workforces that can roll major store systems out to hundreds of stores in a matter of weeks, not months. They also typically run large staging facilities where scores of machines can be prepped for shipment to the degree that they need little more than a network cable and power upon their arrival at the store.
Staging Equipment Minimizes Disruption
Randy Brandt is managing partner for retail professional services at NCR. He manages the deployment of store technology to NCR customers at the field level. Brandt explains that his company operates strategically positioned staging facilities in Nevada, Georgia, and Ohio. "We've developed best practices that take large-scale store systems projects in systematic fashion from engagement to turnover. The most critical element in the success and efficiency of a project is staging." Brandt says the loading and configuration of software on-site was once among the most challenging aspects of an engagement. Now, he says, that's all done in advance at the staging center, where complete systems including peripherals are built and boxed for store-level deployment. "Now our biggest challenge is ramping up when necessary and working with software availability. On a 4,000-store installation, for instance, we have to coordinate software license availability at the staging level before we even worry about shipping machines."
What many people don't realize is that staging engineers are faced with physical challenges of their own. On large-scale implementations, they may receive peripherals from any number of OEM partners, each with their own minor nuances. All the while 'stores in a box' are being built and prepared for shipping in the staging center, systems experts are writing and creating documentation and training materials. They must be ready to provide training and documentation upon the first store-level system deployment.
Finally, when systems are loaded with software or imaged, peripherals are plugged in and ready for power, training curriculum is ready for teaching, and documentation is ready to share, the units begin to ship. Says Brandt, "That's when we bulk up on our store-level engineering staff to handle the rollout." On a multithousand-site project, Brandt estimates that NCR would put 30 engineers on the job and send them crisscrossing the country to bring stores live. "The number of engineers we assign to a job is a balancing act between consistency of service and speed of rollout," he explains. "We need to have a fair-sized contingency so that we can deploy during the stores' downtime, but we want a handful of system experts rather than an army of generalists." Representatives of large-scale store systems deployment companies also concur that their store-level service is less about technology today than it used to be. "Sending people to stores is now all about store personnel and training and operations, not tech work," concludes Brandt.
Web Support: During And After Installation
At tekservePOS, Pruban says that he handles primary software configuration at the staging facility or at the store level, depending on the size and scope of the project. "Then, it's common for stores to handle new software releases and updates remotely via broadband," he says. But the Internet provides a functional tool for service partner and retailer alike throughout the entire process. Pruban says that despite their best efforts, companies like his occasionally need access to documentation or software images while on-site. That's why tekservePOS operates a Web portal for each of its jobs, where technicians have access to all documentation and programming for a given job via the Internet. The portal houses basic information on stores, contacts, stakeholders on the retailer and vendor sides, project management, equipment serial numbers, who's shipping equipment and when, documentation matching equipment serial numbers to store locations, technician schedules, and live updates. The portal defines the project and serves as what Pruban calls a common information gathering point for every facet of the rollout. "We can also communicate with our technicians in real time via the Internet portal," he says. "We've shown them video of how to assemble things, or we've communicated with technicians and validated their work using digital photography."
It's true that open standards, USB plug and play connectivity, and the Internet have eliminated some of the mystique of POS deployment. But the next time you consider a store systems refresh, add up the cost you would incur to handle it in-house. You'll find it's cheaper to hire a reputable deployment service provider, even if you don't factor in the time you spent doing the math.