Retail operators and multi-location store owners often face difficulties in attempting to bring cohesion to their accounting, financial, and operational data. In so many situations, the retail location – where inventory is sold and money is exchanged – is far-removed from the administrative location where the financial systems and business reporting exist. It seems that the best case scenario is to create a means for the remote (retail) locations to operate with real-time access to centralized customer, inventory, and financial data from a primary source. Application hosting services can provide this centralization, and a platform for standardization, of systems. Further, the application hosting model can deliver security and managed service which ensures that the systems are available and performing as required.
Even though hosted applications and centralization of the systems and processes in a POS environment may appear to be the right answer, there are caveats and considerations that speak to the realities of today’s technologies. These caveats should be strongly considered prior to undertaking any reformation of systems and processes relating to the retail locations.
The first fundamental reality which must be addressed is connectivity. While a retail or store location may enjoy Internet or network connectivity, there should be great consideration given to the wisdom of connecting these locations only and exclusively via remote access systems. Retail is a dynamic business, and the sale is made when the customer is ready and willing to buy. Any retail location must be able to process this sale in order to meet the immediacy of customer demand. If the systems in use are exclusively accessed remotely, then the connectivity to those systems become of paramount importance in the ability to do business. At the very minimum, any remotely-served retail location should have redundant connectivity options, with local personnel being familiar with the connection failover process.
A second strong consideration for a hosted or remotely-deployed POS or retail system is local device support. Devices, such as card readers, scanners, cash drawers, receipt printers, etc. typically require local PC/computer drivers in order to function. When served by a remote system, this connection between the host and the local devices may not function. Limited device support for POS hardware can significantly impact the location’s accuracy and efficiency.
Another area of consideration for POS and retail systems centralization is integration or synchronization of POS data with core accounting and financial data. Depending on the software solution in use, this integration may require that the POS software/data and the financial software/data reside on the same computer and/or within the same network. This may be one area where a hosted implementation may offer a great deal of benefits, but the benefits to be derived are often a function of the design and behavior of the applications integrating.
QuickBooks Point-of-Sale, for example, was designed for use on a single-user PC environment. The application is not well-suited to a hosted deployment for multiple users, as the software only allows one instance of itself to run on each computer. While there is a “multi-store” option for this solution, the option requires all stores be connected via a LAN/WAN connection to the same network. RDS (remote data sharing) functionality might possibly be used to allow communication between locally-run POS locations and the “master location” at a hosting service provider, but this method of communication has previously been found to be somewhat problematic and platform-specific (see notes following relating to multi-user/store configuration and Vista OS). Further, the potential poor performance of RDS connections often negatively impacts the value of the integration.
In many cases, the suitable answer is to keep the POS systems running on the local computers and network, and run the financial applications and the POS integration at the host. With an installation of the QuickBooks financial application and the point-of-sale solution with the hosting service provider, the core financial data is able to be secured and protected in the virtual environment without risking lost productivity (and lost sales!) due to connectivity failures at the retail locations. The end-of-day process at each location is to then move a copy of the POS data file to the host system, where it would be integrated with the QB financial data. In environments where is is desirable to have the POS systems reading customer and/or inventory data directly from the QuickBooks financial data files, the recommendation is to keep an available copy of the financial data file in the POS network, on the local computers. This copy of the data file provides the point-of-sale systems with necessary customer and product information, and would be copied/updated during the same end-of-day process where POS data is moved up for integration on the host system.
This process is very similar to the way in which a localized system might be utilized, where the POS application runs at the front counter and the accounting application and data run from a back-office system. In this scenario, many businesses elect to simply log off from the front counter system so that they can launch the POS application from the back-office computer, and then integrate the POS data with the QB financial data on that same computer. Even in remote network configurations (WAN configuration), this is often a method which delivers better performance and stability than utilizing the remote data sharing service.