Point-of-sale systems can help retailers improve their customer relationships, sales and overall business practices.
Brenda Powell clicks through a spreadsheet on her computer screen as she rings up a sale of sphagnum moss for a regular customer at Garland Nursery in Corvallis. It’s the tail end of winter but staffers are preparing for the busy growing season ahead.
Powell knows her customer’s name and story by heart.
Her point-of-sale system, on the other hand, knows exactly what her customer has bought at this time last year. All she must do is enter her customer’s loyalty program number. The system can also tell Powell how much spaghnum moss sold last year, how much is in stock now, and gross profit percentages and margins. It just takes a quick search for “sphagnum moss.”
The nursery has used Epicor inventory management software since 2001. Gone are the days of painstakingly tracking each plant in handwriting and ringing up transactions with registers. The software system has modernized those processes. It handles inventory, credit card processing and back-office accounting — all at the click of a button or the swipe of a handheld barcode scanner.
Everything, that is, except payroll.
“It has more capability than we have the capacity to use,” Powell said. “We’re plant people and retail people, and not necessarily technology people.”
The system was originally designed for hardware stores but the nursery has customized it. Settling on this system took quite a bit of research and investment.
“We looked at three different systems, had presentations from two of those companies and weighed all the things it could do,” Powell said. “This system had a way of converting the data from our old system to the new system — one of its biggest selling factors. We felt it was way more customizable than the others.”
In the time since, Powell has seen some return on investment in terms of eliminating redundancies.
“I’ve gotten a lot of people who call saying, ‘I bought this plant but I don’t know what kind it is.’ Before, we just said, ‘We don’t know how to tell,’ but with this system, you can look it up,” Powell said. “I had one customer who called me up and said I bought this really pretty lily, I think I bought it in July, but I can’t remember what it was.’ I found it in the system. She asked if I had more in stock and came in to buy some. It does help with sales.”
Customization and functionality are key
Many different point-of-sale systems are available for nurseries and garden centers. They range in expense, intuitiveness, capability, customizability and scope. But if the people who know plants better than software can get past the technical learning curve and initial expense, these systems have improved the bottom line for many nurseries.
One of those systems is SBI Software, developed by Small Business Innovations Inc. in Portland. The software was developed specifically for growers and garden centers.
“I would say we’re one of the very few software companies that serves growers exclusively,” said Eric Evans, marketing director. “One of our founders ran a nursery in New Jersey for six years, so he has a unique perspective as both a software developer and a grower. He knew what he wanted for his business, so he started building software for it.”
SBI’s system is designed to interconnect with, and be inclusive of, every stage of development for a grower, from seeds to shipping, forecasting and budgeting. Also setting it apart from competitors, SBI has several models of PCI-compliant, chip card-enabled swipe machines available for purchase. It can also process credit cards “in the cloud.”
The system additionally features customizable pricing promotions such as “buy and get,” “spend and get,” “mix and match” and more, as well as customizable loyalty programs. The software can automatically generate discounts, gift cards or certificates, vouchers or rebates, among other items.
Other features include the capability of importing and converting data from whatever bookkeeping system the garden center was previously using, plus comprehensive reports and 24/7 technical support.
Argos Software is another company that largely serves wholesale nurseries and growers. Its ABECAS Insight Farm and Ranch Software offers tools for full operations and accounting management for larger and more complex farm operations. Its main feature is called “activity based costing.” For example, an operation can calculate exactly how much labor each employee spends and which equipment they use.
“Our company provides software modules designed for wholesale growers. They may use it for production management, inventory management and business operations, including accounting and payroll, depending on their needs,” said Pauline Carre Montgomery, marketing manager.
When the company first starts working with a grower, the software developer learns all it can about the operation to decide which modules would be best suited for the business. It also offers 10–15 days of on-site training when the system is installed.
Upgrading for the long haul
Wholesale and retail nurseries are embracing this technology. But many businesses have long-standing histories in the areas they serve — histories that predate the development of any software systems.
Al’s Garden Center, for example, began in 1948 as Al’s Fruit Stand, first housed in a used chicken coop along Highway 99E in Woodburn. Since those days, technology has improved rapidly and the garden center chainlet with three locations has adapted.
Al’s uses Phoenix Business Solutions as its point-of-sale solution, said Mark Bigej, Al’s co-owner and chief operating officer. The garden center first installed it in 2005 and completed an upgrade in 2014.
“The current system is definitely reliable. Downtime is minimal and we have built in a back-up server so our cash registers are rarely down,” Bigej said. “Speed and ease of use in the checkout process is good. Reporting is much improved in the latest update, although I have seen better, more user-friendly reporting in other software.”
The system features fully integrated accounting software, so the garden center’s inventory is managed through the system from purchase order creation to receiving and selling the product to a customer, to paying vendors for products.
“As long as everything is done correctly, you running inventory is perfect,” Bigej said. “The challenge becomes having the right process in place to ensure everything is done correctly. That is a constant challenge for us, but one we are getting better at. It is much more thorough than our previous systems.”
The point-of-sale system also has the capability to process credit cards, but the garden center has chosen, for security reasons among others, to keep credit card processing separate.
Another challenge came in installing and implementing the system, which Bigej said was an enormous and labor-intensive undertaking. He recommended taking your time and making sure you are happy with the system that you choose, because you will likely be in it for the long haul.
Overall, however, the system has made business more efficient.
“With any system, the real return on investment comes from improved business practices,” Bigej said. “Our system was designed by CPAs, so it does not allow for shortcuts, which helps carry true numbers all the way through the system into the accounting portion of the software. This forces you to look at and fix weaknesses in your business practices, which in turn saves money in some places and allows you to make more money in others.”
Steep learning curve for newbies
While many nurseries have operated the same point-of-sale system for many years, Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Everson, Washington, has just begun using a new system.
Cloud Mountain is a nonprofit community farm and education center dedicated to providing hands-on learning opportunities to new and experienced farmers, as well as home gardeners. These educational experiences are integrated with the management and operation of the 45-acre farm and retail nursery.
Prior to obtaining a point-of-sale system, the retail operation used a cash register and manually entered everything into QuickBooks, nursery administrator Terry Maczuga said. To process credit cards, they had used an Evalon/Costco merchant terminal and a Square-like mobile credit card swipe for events and its farmers market. Inventory management was handled through twice-annual manual counts of inventory product. They used a database for tracking values, but inventory counts were only accurate right after inventory was done, Maczuga said.
“This took too many labor hours entering data into QuickBooks, plus manually counting only gave us a twice-a-year snapshot,” Maczuga said. “There was no tracking of most plants or detail through QuickBooks.”
The biggest challenge the nursery faced was that it propagates and grows most of its own material, or employs contract growers, so the nursery needed a system that they could use to track up-potting events as well as bought material. They needed to be able to track more efficiently the nursery’s non-inventory fruit and vegetable sales with more detail, including organic sales versus conventional, a step necessary for organic certification, Maczuga said.
Lastly, they lastly wanted to find a system that would easily report to QuickBooks for sales and inventory valuation and allow them to keep tracking nonprofit, education and grant projects in QuickBooks.
After about six months of research, the farm center invested in NCR Counterpoint. Factoring into their decision, they considered local support, cost, inventory management and the ability to create and edit orders before delivery for a restaurant or caterer customer.
The nursery softly launched the system at the end of the season in fall of last year, after sales slowed down. “It has taken three months to even figure out many of the features we could use and how to use them, and there are still many things we don’t know and can’t quite figure out to make it work smoothly,” Maczuga said. “Training of staff so far has actually helped us figure out how to make it work. We opened for the 2016 season on February 1 and will find out more about what we need to know as the season progresses.”
The experience of shopping for a system has been a difficult one, partly because of the technical learning curve involved, Maczuga said. But he foresees the investment will pay off in the long run.
“Because we run the retail side with a very small staff, plus our interns, who are new every year, it will free staff from data entry and inventory management. These hours are valuable time better spent in intern education and customer service,” Maczuga said.