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    That's A Good Question:

    Buying In-Store Technology

    So many choices, so little time and money. To invest most wisely, retailers considering in-store hardware upgrades or additions should zero in on a few key areas, according to industry technology experts.

    First, what functionality do you want? "List everything you want the equipment to do," suggested Gene Gerke, of Gerke and Associates, based in Columbia, Mo. "Go to market, see what is available and what it costs. Ease of use and ease of training are often features listed, and those will drive you in a certain direction. But then retailers usually give up some feature or function, because they don't want to pay the full cost."

    After finding a piece of equipment compatible to the rest of your system, look to the local service network, advised Bob Sleeper, senior systems analyst for NOCO Express Shops, a 40-store chain based in Tonawanda, N.Y. Also, verify all manufacturer claims with other retailers, "I like to pilot it, if I can," he said. "There is no Consumer Reports for c-store hardware. I wish there was."

    According to Mike Cooper, manager of MIS for The Pinnacle Corp., based in Arlington, Texas, retailers would be well served to ask themselves the following questions before making hardware decisions: Where are the bottlenecks in our company? What is taking the most time? What is impeding our efficiency? What seems to always break? What kinds of failures are we always seeing?

    C-store operators may want to quiz manufacturers, too: How well do you know the c-store environment? Who is your customer base? How well do you know the software that will be running on the hardware?

    Find a retail user who is not on the manufacturer's list of references. "If possible, ask that retailer what causes the most problems," Cooper suggested. "Does the manufacturer keep its commitments? Has it done its job as promised? What would you do if you could do the deal again?"

    The hardest decisions to make, NOCO's Sleeper said, are those made between two or three pieces of equipment that all do the same thing and meet the rest of the chain's criteria.

    "Then it all comes down to functionality, cost and ease of use. Some of that is subjective. It might come down to how often it might crash — and I can only get that from talking to other users. Or, there might be something to base a decision on I might not even think about."

    Recently, Sleeper had to choose between a few similar scanners. "One fell asleep when it wasn't used for a while and it was hard to wake up again," he said. "The cashiers wouldn't use it because it didn't respond fast enough. I wouldn't have thought of that when looking at different types of scanners. It is the kind of thing that pops up during piloting or after you make a decision. I really hate it when things like that come up after I make a decision. It's a bummer."

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