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    Hardware Going Nowhere?

    Retailers piece together service options for in-store technology.

    Point-of-sale register on the fritz? PC has a glitch? Need a good fix? Call 1-800 or is it 1-888 or maybe you should call the guy who came in the other day and fixed the broken window. Heck, maybe your supervisor will know who to call . . .

    Whether facing a hiccup or a major crash, the road to repair is not an easily traveled one for most convenience store operators. While large chains may have internal help desks, dedicated personnel and a warehouse of devices for in-store repairs, most operators cobble together a few extra pieces of hardware, a list of in-house personnel who can handle simple fixes and phone numbers of local dealers and not-so-local equipment manufacturers to keep the business running.

    "It's tough," said Gene Gerke, president of Gerke and Associates, a technology consulting firm based in Columbia, Mo. "A lot of smaller and mid-sized companies would like to outsource the repair function. They may not be able to afford a person or half a person in-house to fix store hardware."

    Unfortunately, there may not be a local equipment dealer offering a reliable repair service, either. "The retailer often has to figure out a way to do it himself," Gerke said. "A five-store owner is probably working with an equipment dealer somewhere, and depending on his own technical abilities or those of a store manager who has become the informal go-to person because he happens to be a tech geek. Outsourcing or doing things in-house — both are costly and have their own set of headaches."

    This great — often unfilled — demand for reliable service has become many retailers' primary driver in the selection of technology.

    "I've had to disqualify some pieces of equipment that would be a good fit for us, because of the [inadequate level] of service available," noted Bob Sleeper, senior systems analyst for 40-unit NOCO Express Shops, based in Tonawanda, N.Y. (For more on making hardware decisions, see "That's a Good Question: Buying In-Store Technology," Page 75.)

    At NOCO, as at many chains, the way a piece of hardware is repaired depends on what piece it is. If a PC — or anything hooked to the PC — is malfunctioning, the store manager calls NOCO's information technology department, where repairs are handled by two members of the six- person IT team. The company's training center is equipped with PCs identical to those in the stores. "We use them for a wide array of training," Sleeper said. "They are programmed and ready to go."

    Problems with other hardware — including the POS system, gas pumps and anything else NOCO owns — are handled by the chain's maintenance department.

    "If it is a problem our maintenance department can't handle, then we outsource the repair and pay on a per-call basis," Sleeper said.

    Most tech calls routed to the maintenance department are handled by two employees who have taken dealer courses on the chain's in-store equipment. They do some POS reprogramming, replace printers and make other repairs using the receipt printers, PIN pads and keyboards NOCO keeps on hand.

    "We can replace a board or rebuild a PC fairly easily. But for something like a total POS replacement, the manufacturer would be called. For a total reprogramming, an outsource company would be called."

    This divvying up of repair responsibilities can be a bit confusing for store employees, however, Sleeper admitted.

    Despite the occasional call that goes astray and a "fairly decent" relationship with the outsource repair firm, handling repairs in-house is much more efficient than looking outside for help, he said.

    "When you do it yourself, you can control the response time, especially in critical situations. For certain devices, though, it doesn't make sense to keep extras and personnel in-house for repair, because they aren't critical."

    The return on investment for a service contract or in-house repair person isn't always clear-cut. "There are no benchmarks on how often things fail or how often you will need to call on an outsourced repair service or in-house person," Sleeper said. "Things often go in waves. But investing in an in-house person or paying for a reliable service contract is like paying insurance; you know you'll eventually need it."

    Keeping It In-House

    While outsourcing repairs allows smaller chains to respond fairly quickly to mission-critical failures without inventorying hardware or paying in-house salaries, an outsource vendor may not have the same sense of urgency as the store operator, warned Mike Cooper, manager of MIS for The Pinnacle Corp., Arlington, Texas.

    With an in-house repair staff, retailers have complete control over the quality of the repair. In-house personnel also have better knowledge of the store's equipment.

    That's the case at Kwik Trip Inc., based in LaCrosse, Wis., where an eight-person, 24-hour communication center fields calls for all types of help from 300 c-stores in three states. This help desk is able to answer 80 to 90 percent of the calls regarding store technology on the fritz, according to Ron Sissel, manager, retail automation. Help-desk software enables employees at the communications center to determine the problem quickly.

    Kwik Trip also has a PC help desk, which takes over calls relating to the chain's PCs (used at the register, in the backroom and for computer-based training) and its routers that are too difficult or time-consuming for the communications center to handle. The four-person PC help desk is manned from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m. and deals mostly with software-related questions. PC hardware problems are handled by three PC maintenance workers, who also do yearly preventive maintenance on each of the chain's computers to avoid major failures. One of the PC maintenance workers is always on call.

    The use of frame-relay technology — initially implemented for speedier credit/debit transactions — has greatly benefited in-house repair efforts. "It is fantastic for support," Sissel said. "Most of the PC-related problems we run into are user misunderstandings. With frame relay we can track any computer [in the field] and take it over. We can see what the user is doing as he is doing it."

    For every 12 to 15 stores, Kwik Trip has a complete backup system at one unit. Downtime is minimal. "If there is a failure, the manager can drive to that store, pick up new equipment and replace it," Sissel noted. "We try to keep the drive to a new system less than 50 miles. If there is a failure of a scanner or printer, the manager can drive to that store and replace it. If a PC goes down, then we dispatch someone from here."

    The chain also has 20 systems in rotation. Broken components are refurbished and reused. Using the warehouse and delivery trucks already in place for Kwik Trip's own product warehouse, new hardware can be regularly delivered to stores.

    "A manager gets deliveries from our warehouse three times a week," Sissel said. "If he has a printer down, he may just wait for the next truck to bring one."

    Most of the chain's equipment is NCR brand and the chain is a certified NCR service shop. Its maintenance workers also are certified to fix Xerox and Okidata printers. If a device breaks down, it is brought in-house and fixed.

    "If we used NCR service instead of doing it ourselves, it could be a four- to eight-hour response time," he said. "Then, they may not have our parts on hand. We could be down for a day and a half."

    Even taking the downtime out of the equation, the cost of outside service fees alone makes having an in-house staff valuable, Sissel said. "We save a great deal of money."

    Occasionally, Kwik Trip will dispatch a rep from a local computer shop for a quick repair on a non-essential piece of equipment. "We will tell them what needs to be done and send them the part to do it. We are four hours from Milwaukee. A local person may do a repair for $200, when it would cost us $400 or $500 to do it ourselves."

    A central help desk also routes calls for hardware repairs from Quick Chek Food Stores Inc.'s 106 units. The Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based chain operates its help desk from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, and from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekends, according to Subhash Shah, chief of information systems. During off hours, someone handling in-store repairs is on call via pager and cell phone.

    Three employees on the help-desk staff are designated for technological help. They are supported by the chain's wide area network. "We can dial in to every store," Shah said. "If there is a problem with a program on the computer or something else we can access, we can walk them through a solution over the phone. If it is a hardware problem, we walk them though a process."

    Help-desk personnel and two field maintenance employees have come up through the chain's operations, noted Bruce Stevenson, systems manager. "Through the years, every time we put a new system in, they've been very involved, so they have intimate knowledge of the equipment," he said.

    Quick Chek runs its own repair depot and inventories most of the components needed. Because its stores are no more than two hours away from headquarters, a tech maintenance employee will go to a store with a working piece of hardware, install it and bring back the broken piece for repair.

    Keeping Busy

    While some retailers worry an in-house repair tech may be underused, such concerns are misplaced, Pinnacle's Cooper said. "With training and foresight, it's easy to control the person's downtime, if he is responsible for non-POS equipment, too. But the retailer shouldn't have such a large workload that repairs suffer. The retailer's dream should be that everything runs so well that the repair person has a lot of downtime!"

    When estimating the value of an in-house repair staff, retailers should consider the age of the equipment, warranties, the staff's training and the number of stores to be covered. "Going back a few years, when we were not technologically advanced and had only one PC in the store, we outsourced service," Quick Chek's Stevenson noted. "Now, we have enough equipment to support in-house maintenance — at a lower cost. As time goes on, the in-house repair staff becomes more valuable. You realize the benefits of having repairs centralized and under your control. "

    Still, many retailers don't want the overhead or have in-house expertise. For these, a number of outside companies act as repair depots, especially for plug-and-play devices that need little expertise to swap in and out. In this scenario, the operator ships the problem device to the depot, while the depot overnights the store a working, usually refurbished, device it has warehoused. After the depot fixes the malfunctioning device, the device is added to its own inventory, ready to be sent out to the next retailer who needs it. Or, the operator swaps in a working device he has warehoused and ships the broken one out to the depot for repair.

    PayPoint Electronic Payment Systems, the Los Angeles-based electronic payment processor, for example, got into the business of payment equipment sales, replacement, repair, storage, inventory management, technical support and troubleshooting when its retail clients expressed a strong desire for such services. (PayPoint is a wholly owned subsidiary of ARCO, now a part of the BP group of companies.) For a fixed monthly rate, PayPoint Deployment Center (PDC) acts as a single point of contact for c-store operators and other retailers, such as Albertson's, when their POS cashier pads, PIN pads, receipt printers, cables and check readers go on the fritz.

    PDC maintains spare payment equipment in its warehouse. When a retailer orders a replacement, PDC techs pull a refurbished piece from its inventory, make the necessary technical configurations and, in most cases, ship it overnight to the retailer.

    Smaller operators rely on the company for tech support and troubleshooting, noted Chris Dragan, PDC's supervisor. "Often, our techs can solve a problem on the phone in five minutes. Maybe there is a loose connection or the device needs something downloaded over the phone."

    Whatever system a retailer has in place for getting a piece of in-store technology fixed, Dragan had this advice: Label every piece of hardware in the store with the serial number and service phone number. Maintain this on a master list, too.

    No matter what percentage of repairs is outsourced, or the size of the chain, every c-store operator should have an internal "go-to" person and clear contingency plan for store-level employees.

    "You don't want 25 store managers making the decision of whether or not to call in an outsider for repair," Quick Chek's Stevenson said.

    Pinnacle's Cooper strongly agrees with that advice. A few years ago, as an outsource repair tech, he arrived at a major oil company's c-store site to find the doors locked, and several irate customers trying to get the store's employees to turn the pumps on. "The personnel had locked the doors two hours before I arrived, because its only cash register — an old Casio — had malfunctioned."

    The register was fixed in less than two minutes. "The repair needed no tools and would have been easy for the store manager to do," he said. "While I was there, I taught the manager how to make the repair. However, if the corporate office had had a person who could get to the store and perform this type of repair, it would have saved them the repair cost and downtime."

    End note: The manager quit three weeks later.

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