In your mind's eye, picture the long lines at registers in school or business cafès as diners fumble for change and cashiers enter endless transactions. Then picture those transactions' “back side”—where someone else spends hours sorting that data and generating reports. The advent of third-generation point-of-sale (POS) technology promises an end to this kind of drudgery for onsite operators. There's a catch—POS demands a well-thought-out plan, sometimes sizable startup costs and a learning curve. But for almost every operator, the ROI is there...
POS most often is associated with cash registers, but in fact it encompasses a wide range of peripheral devices. Card readers, centralized servers, scanners, touchscreens, printers and wireless handheld devices all fall under the POS umbrella, linked to sophisticated data-recording technology that helps operators manage and analyze data more effectively and more quickly than ever before.
How POS is actively implemented in specific operations can vary dramatically. For example, a large university may want to incorporate POS for foodservice and nonfoodservice profit centers alike, with all data routed to a central server. Tailored reports keep administrators uptodate on ordering information and inventories while providing student-friendly services—important in attracting and keeping students in the competitive, highereducation market.
Alternately, a hospital may look to wireless POS for menu ordering by bedridden patients, sending order data to the kitchen in real-time for quick service. A school district may employ POS to quickly assimilate data from individual schools, cutting down on administrative costs and providing reports to parents on what their kids are eating. Another plus for POS in schools: improved tracking of free and reduced lunches.
And in employee dining operations, POS can get employees in and out of the cafeteria quicker, helping unit managers keep tabs on what is selling, who is dining and how daily or weekly numbers are shaping up.
Despite the almost unlimited number of bells and whistles POS systems can offer, most experts say that operators are best served by matching a technology to their needs, both immediate and long term. That means identifying those needs before settling on a specific vender or approach.
“POS technology does not have to be a big, expensive system,” says Jeff Edwards, vice president of the POS division for Sharp Electronics. “Operators can use a spill-proof flat keyboard, for example, that functions more like a cash register than a touchscreen terminal. Many operators look for low-tech on the front end—simple to use and easy to maintain. They mainly want the capability of pushing information to a central database so it can be used to generate reports for management decision-making.”
For more advanced computing, POS has evolved into enterprise-wide systems, where servers link to every POS terminal and communication occurs back and forth in real time. “Users can have money credited to their cards for spending at any POS terminal on the network,” says Scott Martiny, vice president of sales and marketing for POS provider InfoGenesis. “Here, a realtime, account-management system can oversee various types of cashless processes— credit, declining balance and payroll deductions, for example.
“Beyond that, enterprise systems let managers see the business in real time and evaluate it at a level that's never been possible,” he continues. “With simple electronic cash registers, managers can say, ‘I did $45,000 yesterday.' With enterprise POS, they know exactly how many pizza slices were sold, or how a special brand promotion did in five particular outlets.”
POS technology also enables operators to play detective—identifying cost problems and tracking down solutions.
“One hospital POS-system user had two problems: it always seemed to be running out of coffee, and no matter what soup was made, it wasn't selling well,” explains Karen Nocera, interface projects manager for the Food Management Systems Division of the CBORD Group.
“It turned out people were buying a lot of soup, but putting it in coffee cups. Registers rang up coffee sales even though the contents were soup—a much higher-cost food item that was just walking out the door,” she continues.
Interpreting the data literally, “The operator would observe, ‘I made all this coffee and it looks like it is selling, but look at how much is left!' or, ‘I made all this soup that looks like it is not selling, but where did it go?' Based on the data provided by the POS interface, the operator could go into the kitchen, look at this specific issue and correct it,” says Nocera.
POS offers real benefits for customers, too. “We can get three people through one cashier line in the time it takes for one cashregister transaction,” offers CBORD's Tom Hilton, national sales manager, explaining the benefit of POS in general and his company's systems in particular.
“You don't have to make change or wait for the customer to decide how to pay for it. With an ID card, one swipe and they are on their way.”
In fact, swiping has become so popular that, like supermarkets, some foodservice operations are offering express lines.
“A few places, such as Massachusetts General Hospital, offer express lanes for card users and that convenience has increased participation,” notes Jim Donk, product manager, also of CBORD.
To see how other operators are capitalizing on the POS revolution, read on.
UNIVERSITY OF AKRON
Building Customer Loyalty and Credit Skills
The University of Akron is no stranger to POS technology. Its Auxiliary Business department boasts 18 different POS applications, including foodservice, retail and print centers, all tied together with a centralized server maintained in the administrative offices.
“We literally track every meal served, every card swiped and every transaction,” explains Dean Goumas, director of U of A's Auxiliary Business Operations.
More than 2,200 residents and 22,000 total-students are served by the university's system. It's also used by 34 off-campus merchants that dial into the POS network. For foodservice, POS is augmented by a networked food-inventory software package that provides recipe management and profitability calculations. Other software manages the booking of university catering events and manages accounting for all profit centers in the Auxiliary Business portfolio.
“We are using the ‘Best of Breed' technique for our software rather than an enterprisewide single-suite approach,” says Goumas.
“There are two schools of thought on this: one looks to a big program that controls everything; and the other approach is to take a good POS system and a good back-office system and link them together. We've never found an application that can do everything and believe the second approach helps us avoid compromises.”
Goumas notes that POS is anything but a static technology. He is constantly looking for new techniques that can make the technology more attractive to users.
This fall, for instance, U of A will debut Zippy Rewards and Zippy Express programs (the university nickname is the Zips).
Zippy Rewards lets campus card users earn two points for every dollar they spend, redeemable on the Zippy Rewards website for CDs, DVDs, meals at campus restaurants, and supplies and services offered by the campus community and participating local merchants.
“The program is available at no cost for students—we are funding it from our program,” says Goumas. “We developed the program with our student-based advisory committee and have received a lot of positive feedback about it.”
Importantly, this is not a credit card, so you can't get in over your head. Users predeposit their money and add more on a budgeted basis. Also, they can manage transactions-over the Web.” One more advantage: “the program allows parents better tracking of their students' spending,” Goumas says.
Zippy Express is a Web-based delivery service where students can use their cards to order and pay for food online.
“With POS we can track sales trends on certain items and because POS is networked, we can pull reports on a daily basis,” he adds. Further, “we can roll together historical reports to compare sales from one semester to another, or compare any other timeframe. The alternative is to do all that manually or at least perform a lot of time-consuming data entry. Our POS technology saves us time and gives us more accurate numbers, so why not do it?”
Planning for Technology Upgrades
There's no doubt about it, POS technology has a million and one advantages, but as with all technology, it can become obsolete. Be prepared, advises Kathy Sanders, vice president of Corporate Services for Wachovia Corp.
“The pros of this technology definitely outweigh the cons,” she says, “but be ready for upgrade costs. Something to consider is building into your purchasing contract version-upgrade language, at no additional cost. Also, make sure to have good technical support.”
Sanders knows of what she speaks—her POS equipment, almost three-and-one-half years old, no longer is supported by the technology provider and soon will need upgrading or replacing. Though upgrade surely is a concern, Sanders is quick to point out the tremendous benefits POS technology offers.
“One obvious advantage is the systematic financial reporting that's available,” she says. “Inventory control is another; for example, the ability to know which particular menu items are selling and which aren't. A POS system can capture a lot of valuable information that can make you a more efficient and effective operator.”
There are other advantages, too, from the customer perspective. As Sanders points out, a Web-based system lets customers order lunch online from a desktop PC. Plus, ordering is quicker, with less chance for errors, and the transactions can be cashless.
These benefits are being realized in one Wachovia production center in Orlando, Fla. The cafè is modular, designed for mobility. “It was built with the idea that if we wanted to move it to another part of the building we could,” explains Sanders. “It also was built with custom service areas, in other words, if we wanted to have a deli, pizza station and grille, we could.”
The cafè takes up less space than a fullsized cafeteria and costs less to operate. Customers can use one of five touchscreen terminals located throughout the building to order lunch. The terminals interface with a card reader system that accepts three forms of tender—a Wachovia debit card, any form of charge card and a reloadable decliningbalance card from Debitek. Customers simply punch in their meal order, select a form of payment and process the order. In the meantime, the order is sent to the chef via a remote printer in the kitchen.
Orders can be time-specific, so customers can walk right in and pick up their lunches without waiting in lines. According to Sanders, about 44% of the more than 500 employees at the Orlando location purchase lunch onsite, and as many as 40% of those buyers order from the remote terminals.
The location manager can use the terminals; too, to see how many covers they did by simply touching an icon on the screen. Foodservice employees also use the terminals as time-keeping systems.
Though Sanders says it's difficult to assess whether or not the cashless environment has helped boost sales, she notes that participation levels run higher at this location than in any other Wachovia facility.
MAINE MEDICAL CENTER
Satisfying a Real-Time Appetite
Large-scale hospitals aren't always known for intimate, personal bedside service and very few have the resources to provide much in the way of added “creature comforts.”
But dining services is one area in which a personal touch can make a huge difference in the quality of a patient's stay. By adopting a room-service approach to meal ordering, many healthcare facilities have been able to provide more personalized and responsive care.
Some medical centers are taking it even further by offering one-on-one, “wait-staff” service in which food orders are taken bedside using wireless handheld devices.
One example is Maine Medical Center, Portland, Maine, where trained Nutrition Care Representatives help the department cater to patients' real-time appetites with a Palm Pilot-based bedside ordering system.
Maine Medical Center encompasses three campuses and treats a variety of patient populations, specializing in cardiac care, cancer care and children's services. The center's Nutrition Services department, led by Director Mary Keysor, adopted the new system just over a year ago and it's already paying off. Plate waste is down, customer satisfaction is up and food costs have dropped.
The high-tech approach to personalized care was recently recognized for its contribution to healthcare excellence in a Quality Improvement competition hosted by the hospital. The Nutrition Services' Palm Pilot project took both First Place and the People's Choice Award for “improving patient safety, saving costs and improving patient satisfaction,” according to Keysor.
In a typical meal-ordering scenario, a nutrition care representative meets face-to-face with each patient prior to meals. Using a stylus pen, each patient's selections are entered into the handheld device and then downloaded to Nutrition Service Suite dietary software. The diet office system interfaces with the hospital's mainframe computer and provides admission, discharge and transfer information, along with uptodate diet orders. At a glance, a nutrition associate has access to this information as well as any dietary restrictions and allergies.
Patients have their choice of an array of food choices that fall within their specific diet orders. “This technology allows us to include a lot more variety than a paper menu ever could,” says Keysor. “We can target the menu to the patient's appetite, which allows us to send as much or as little food as the patient wants.”
This is where the cost savings come in. Before going to Palm Pilots, Nutrition Services relied on a typical select menu system in which patients are presented with food and beverage choices—including everything from soups and salads to entrées and desserts—and asked to make the next day's meal selections.
“It was only natural for patients to pick something from almost every category,” says Keysor. It was also “only natural” that, very often, much of that order remained on the tray, uneaten, to eventually be discarded in the dish room.
Since adopting the Palm Pilot project, Keysor estimates a savings of as much as $96,000 per year in food the hospital no longer has to purchase. “The foods we are no longer buying are mostly side-dish items like gelatin, custard and side salads,” she says. “These are things that people generally do not eat when they are sick.”
Besides reduced plate waste and lower food costs, the Palm technology significantly increases patient safety. “By programming the Palm we can improve our ability to monitor patients who may have allergies or special dietary restrictions,” says Keysor.
“It's also a wonderful technology to help our trained menu assistants who are not dietitians. For example, a menu assistant may not know that hot dogs contain wheat. If a patient with a wheat allergy orders a hot dog, the computer knows the ingredients of the food item, and the patient's restrictions, and will automatically substitute a different food item.”
Though Keysor's staff is well versed in the intricacies of hand-held ordering now, it wasn't an easy transition. “In the beginning it seemed as if the staff was focusing more on the Palm Pilots than on the patients,” she says.
“Very quickly we got beyond that and I became convinced this was the way to go for a couple of reasons. With a budget that's shrinking by the year, I want to save costs by cutting waste, not food quality. This technology helps me do that and still brings customer focus to the bedside.”
While handy and efficient, the smart devices aren't appropriate for every patient population that Maine Medical serves—a lesson Keysor and her staff learned early on.
The Palm technology works very well for patients in the Medical/Surgical unit, for example, whose appetites can be “all over the board after surgery,” says Keysor. But in pediatrics, “where it's important for parents to feel in control of their child's care,” she adds, the bedside ordering technique is less effective. “Parents can't always be in the room,” explains Keysor. “If a nutrition associate comes in to take an order and the parent is out, they may be left talking to a three year old.”
For these situations, Nutrition Services employs a number of other patient services, including special kids' menus, upscale, hotel-like room service for the family birthing center, gift baskets and complimentary newspapers with breakfast orders.
DENVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Sweat-Equity Pays Off
“Installing a POS system is a tremendous amount of work, but the benefits are super and the hard work will pay off,” says Leo Lesh, support services manager for Denver Public Schools' Department of Food and Nutrition Services.
The Denver Public School District includes 130 schools and some 70,000 students. About 57% of the student population qualifies for free or reduced meals. Denver is unlike many districts in that its Food and Nutrition Dept. runs its own food warehouse. Combine this with its huge student population and it's no wonder the district has been relying on the tracking and reporting capabilities of POS technology for quite some time. But like every school system, Denver is under the gun to keep up with federal regulations and district requirements. The POS system it employs uses a DOS-based program, and while it is able to provide plenty of reporting options, it does not allow for the advanced capabilities of newer operating systems.
“We really took a critical look at our operation and said ‘what do we need to run our business',” says Lesh. “For us, the critical components were tracking of free/reduced meals and inventory; nutritional analysis; meal planning; and various management functions.
“We began the search process about two years ago, looking at what was out there and what the capabilities were. We wanted to go with a company that was progressive, one that is always keeping up with technology. For example, I wanted a company that could offer biometrics, if needed, even though I don't forsee us using it right now.”
After an exhaustive search, Lesh and his team settled on WebSMARTT POS from School-Link Technologies, Santa Monica, Calif. The Web-based system, powered by Windows WinSNAP software, is touted as the only K-12 foodservice software system that uses a browser-based user interface for real-time transactions against a central database.
The new system will be up and running at Denver Public Schools by the start of classes this month, says Lesh. Students will simply punch in their six-digit ID number on a keypad as they go through the line. (They are already accustomed to doing this now.)
Though the numbers method of identifi-cation has worked well, Lesh says the new system is flexible enough that it provides for a card feature as well.
“The added features this system offers gives us a great advantage,” says Lesh. For instance, wireless POS devices are an option that the district may explore for its high schools.
“All of our high schools are open campuses and it's a challenge to get students to eat in the cafeteria,” explains Lesh. “With wireless devices, we could do reimbursable meals outside, giving the students more options and capturing more sales.” Handheld devices would also work well for tracking inventory, he adds, as most items are bar-coded.
Be sure to keep your eye on the ball, Lesh advises. “Some stuff is nice but not really needed,” he says. “You have to weigh the gadgets against what will really benefit you.”
NEW YORK LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY
The “Cashless” Cow
Faster check out lines and better salestracking methods were the goals of Manhattan-based New York Life Insurance Co. when it decided to go cashless after a major overhaul of its main cafÈ area.
The Fortune 500 mutual-life-insurance company and its foodservice contractor Aramark believed automating the foodservice operations would boost customer satisfaction and provide more accurate, detailed reporting. Before going cashless, the company used stand-alone cash registers that did a fine job tendering sales but had very limited reporting capabilities.
“We weren't able to monitor which food items were selling or produce itemized reports,” explains New York Life's Kevin Harmon, corporate services consultant. He adds that it was difficult to offer cafeteria incentives such as special employee discounts or bonus programs.
Now, he says, employees can make purchases through Express Check, a payroll deduction system, or through Value Ports that let employees use ID cards to add value to their accounts via bill acceptors.
“Through the new system we can market the cafeteria,” he says. “For example, we could offer bonuses for employees who purchase value online, say, a 10% credit for those who purchase $50 worth of value.”
The system employs CBORD's Windowsbased Odyssey PCS System, which integrates all cashless activities and transactions on one card over a main network, and point-of-sale hardware from Micros. For example, at New York Life employees use ID badges to make cafÈ purchases and other transactions in a special vendor room where outside vendors come to sell their wares, such as clothing and jewelry.
Employees on the Express Check system can spend up to $150 per pay period. For those who want to monitor spending more closely, the Value Ports are a nice option. “Initially the intention was to offer Value Cards that could be purchased by guests of our employees through the Value Ports,” explains Harmon. “But many employees like to use this method because they want to watch what they are spending.”
Employees also seem to enjoy the convenience of swiping—since going cashless the operation's check averages are up close to a dollar each.
With the added revenue, the company may soon upgrade to networked Micros 3700 cash register units. Currently employed Micros 2700 units connect only to back-office equipment. The 3700s, in contrast, connect to a server which significantly increases flexibility. In addition, the 3700s are touchscreen units and operate much faster.
For foodservice operators considering such POS technology, Harmon has some advice. “Talk to other operators who are using the system and discuss tech support,” he says. “Also, be sure you understand what's involved in implementing the system. Some of this information is hard to get up front because often you are dealing with sales people. That's why it's important to talk to others currently using the system.”
NOVATO UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
Reports in Minutes, Not Hours
Suppose you spent four hours each workday generating manual reports. What would you do with that time if you could do the same job in just a few minutes?
Miguel Villarreal, foodservice director for California's Novato Unified School District, is about to find out. The 20-year foodservice veteran is readying his troops to roll out a district-wide POS system this fall that will take the place of an existing antiquated reporting method.
In practice, the foodservice department compiles a weekly student roster for each school site from the existing student database. It is coded according to each students' status—paid, free or reduced. These reports are sent out to each school, each week, in the district and serve as the main tracking method for all students.
Tracking prepaid students is especially tedious: cashiers manually check them off the roster each day as they come through the lunch line, keeping a running total from one week to the next. The cashiers then manually count all students that were served each day and create a daily summary report. Finally, the foodservice department takes each school's daily summary report and enters it into a spreadsheet, providing a cumulative total of meals served for the entire district.
“We spend anywhere from two to four hours per day manually generating these reports,” says Villarreal. “That's time we could spend in more productive ways, like producing meals.”
Novato Unified School District encompasses 13 schools (two high schools, three middle schools and eight elementaries) and 7,600 students. Overall meal participation is about 40%, with about 1,200 students having free or reduced status.
“The main reason we are installing POS is for financial accountability,” says Villarreal. “Other reasons are to increase participation and build awareness of the foodservice program. The POS system will help because we will be able to provide reports to parents showing them what their students are purchasing on any given day.”
There's an added benefit for parents, too. “The new system can be cashless because it lets parents prepay into their child's account on the Web,” says Villarreal. Further, parents can request a participation report and an itemized account of what their child has purchased at any time. With the obesity issue weighing heavy on everyone's mind, “it's one way to show parents what we are doing and what their kids are eating,” Villarreal adds. “It helps them understand our program.”
Villarreal has been through the POS system installation process twice before with other districts and knows what to expect.
“It's important to choose a system that's reliable and has a good track record,” he says. “You don't want to be out at the schools every other day handling technical problems.”
The Novato district has been using a back-of-the-house software package called NutriKids from LunchByte Systems, Rochester, NY, for nutritional analysis and also has opted to use its front-of-the-house POS package. NutriKids POS, released in 2000, operates in more than 220 districts nationwide.
At Villarreal's operation, the system will include 19 POS terminals as well as peripheral devices such as PIN pads that allow students to call up individual accounts using a personal identification number. With the new POS technology, Villarreal expects to see participation numbers skyrocket, particularly at the middle and highschool levels.
“Today's systems eliminate any overt identification of free and reduced students,” he says. “About one third of the kids in two of our middle schools are free and reduced; and if you consider our participation numbers, we feed only about 30 to 40% of them. My past experience has shown those numbers going up to close to 100% once you take away the overt identifi-cation.”
According to Villarreal, it's up to the individual middle and high schools, to choose either a number or card system (the technology allows for both) but he expects most will opt for PIN numbers. “Like many schools, we have had our share of staffing reductions and there's nobody to keep track of the cards and help the kids as they come through the lines. As administrators, we will work hard to make sure the kids learn their numbers,” he says.
One particularly handy feature of the Nutri-Kids system is the ability for cashiers to call up an entire classroom roster and simply touch each child's name or picture as they come through the line. “This works well for the younger kids who may have a difficult time learning their numbers,” says Villarreal.
No matter what the method, he emphasizes the importance of training and communication. “Make sure everyone knows how the system works and what everybody's responsibility is,” he says. “That includes both students and parents. Over the years I've learned that the process goes much more smoothly when efforts are made to help students learn their numbers before the systems are installed. It also helps to show parents the benefits of these systems early on.”