POS Gives Small Retailers Big Boost

By Gerry Blackwell
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Most big retail chains have long since made the move to computer-based point of sale (POS) terminals that integrate tightly with accounting and inventory control systems and offer bright color graphics displays and easy touchscreen operation. They make cashiers more productive, enhance customer service and streamline managerial and back-office functions.

Now Microsoft, with its recently released Microsoft Dynamics Point of Sale (POS) 2.0 is making it possible for small independent retailers, including one-store operations, to realize the same benefits. POS 2.0 includes Microsoft Office Accounting Professional 2007, a full-featured small business accounting product. (The application also integrates with Intuit's popular QuickBooks 2003 and later versions.)

The list price is $799, and that includes at least 30 days of free technical support. (As part of a launch promotion, Microsoft is currently offering free unlimited technical support until June 2007.) Customers who don't opt for a service plan ($45 a month) still get ongoing free technical support for "emergency and mission-critical operations" during regular support hours.

POS 2.0 runs on any PC with a Pentium lll 1.2 GHz or faster processor (2.4 GHz recommended) and Windows XP with Service Pack 2, or Windows Vista. It's compatible with a long list of POS hardware devices, including card readers, cash drawers, check readers, line displays, pin pads, printers, barcode scanners and signature capture devices.

In a very small retail operation, all components can run on a single PC that functions both as the company's main computer and a POS terminal. In larger operations, the databases — inventory, customers, transactions etc. — that Dynamics POS and Microsoft Office Accounting Professional establish can reside on another computer on the network, to which the POS terminals post data.

Dual Views
The program has a POS view that cashiers use to process transactions and carry out some low-level managerial functions, and a manager view that helps retailers manage purchases, generate reports and manage customer and employee information. Manager view has the familiar look and feel of Microsoft Office products.

Microsoft Dynamics Point of Sale 2.0 screenshot
You can customize point-of-sale screens for your store by add custom buttons and images.
(Click for larger image)

Authorized personnel can flip back and forth between the two views with a simple mouse click or screen tap. This is a major enhancement from earlier versions that required launching and logging into a separate management program. It makes the application easier to use for very small operations where the owner may also be the cashier at least some of the time and the company's main PC also functions as a POS terminal.

Microsoft's claim that the system is easier for cashiers to use than many traditional cash registers does not seem at all out of line. Integrating barcode scanning for item entry, using graphical touchscreen-ready screens and custom short-cut buttons all contribute to faster, easier transactions and improved employee productivity. (Speeding transactions is also a key customer service benefit, of course.)

Fast, Easy Transactions
In one sample POS view screen for a small coffee shop, large labeled buttons with pictures of products or icons for categories or short-cut functions are grouped in a panel on one side. The transaction is recorded in a pane on the other side.

To ring in the sale of an espresso and a blueberry muffin, the cashier touches the espresso button, which is visible on the home screen, touches the baked goods category button to reveal the baked goods menu, and touches blueberry muffin. The items are added to the transaction window. If the customer proffers a five dollar bill, the cashier can touch the $5 short-cut button to complete the transaction, calculate the change owing and open the cash drawer. Four screen taps and done.

The program allows extensive customization, including the ability to design custom touchscreen buttons using imported graphics. Owners can even set up different screen configurations for each employee — allowing them to provide a simplified or more self-explanatory POS view for trainees, for example.

Microsoft Dynamics Point of Sale 2.0 screenshot
In Microsoft Dynamics — Point of Sale 2.0, you can create automatic purchase orders and track item movement and supplier history.
(Click for larger image)

Functionality in the manager view is equally rich — far too rich to describe in any detail here, in fact. Automation of inventory control is a key back-office benefit. You can set automatic reorder points and restock levels, for example. When a retail transaction pushes an inventory item below the reorder point, POS 2.0 automatically generates a purchase order for replenishment.

Real-Time Sales Reports
This new version also includes a bigger selection of reports that provide real-time sales data on which items are selling best and which customers are buying the most. It allows small retailers to develop targeted promotions and to deliver more personalized service.

To ensure the loyalty of his best customers, for example, an owner could offer a regular discount. In manager view, he selects the customer task center, does a search for the customer and changes the customer's record to include the discount. Now, whenever that person makes a purchase, the discount is automatically applied in POS view. It's also possible to apply discounts manually from within POS view.

Other new features in this version:

  • Separation of purchase orders and item receipts, making it easier to receive stock not specifically ordered
  • The ability for cashiers to receive new inventory from within POS view
  • Gift card processing (through service provider First Data Corp.)
  • Check verification (again through First Data)
  • Support for additional U.S. banks' credit and debit cards through First Data
  • Feature centers in Manager view that provide easy access to common tasks — e.g. inventory, customers, reports, store settings, transactions
  • Tutorials to help get employees up and running quickly

The product's slick and comprehensive functionality is impressive. More impressive is that most small retailers with even modest computer skills should be able to install and set up POS 2.0 in fairly short order.

Install It Yourself
Microsoft — with typical hyperbole — claims that it's possible to be up and processing transactions within ten minutes. This is nonsense of course. Installing the program alone takes longer than that and setting it up to work the way your business works could take hours. If you're setting up and learning Microsoft Office Accounting 2007 at the same time, you're looking at a sizeable time investment.

Still, the install and setup procedures are fairly straightforward. Wizards guide you at each stage, starting with installation. Our out-of-the-box experience was generally good. Installation and set-up proceeded as the documentation said it would.

Some POS hardware, including the barcode scanner from Symbol that Microsoft sent, installs with plug-'n'-play ease. We plugged the reader into a USB port, waited for Windows to find the appropriate driver and were able to use the device immediately in POS 2.0 without any further configuration.

The only surprise that delayed the installation had nothing to do with program design or glitches. In order to use the POS 2.0 accounting system integration wizard, it was necessary to install Microsoft Professional Accounting, naturally enough. When we went to do that, the install program informed us that we couldn't continue until we had upgraded my copy of Outlook 2003. This required going to a Microsoft update page, downloading about 85 megabytes of updates and patches, installing them and restarting the computer.

Twenty-five minutes later we completed the process.

Bottom Line
Microsoft Dynamics POS 2.0 installs well and works well. The price seems reasonable given the application's comprehensiveness. Very small businesses without technology skills or confidence in their ability to muddle through the install and set-up procedures may want to ask Microsoft for a referral for a local value-added reseller (VAR).

We would also ask Microsoft who defines "emergency" and "mission-critical" for the purposes of deciding whether free support will be provided if you don't have a service contract. Better still, fork over the $45 a month for the contract.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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This article was originally published on February 22, 2007
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