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Friday, 13 June 2014

What a server-less retailer looks like

I've been helping a retail company with a few stores around Sydney. They don't have dedicated IT staff, so every support call is expensive, and having their own servers is very hard.

I got involved because they needed an internal ordering system, which I implemented as a collection of Google Spreadsheets. This was only a temporary fix, as I'm not a great fan of long-term data or business processes sitting in spreadsheets. But one thing led to another and they brought their email over to Google Apps.

To access the spreadsheets and their mail there is a Chromebook in each store. These have been very, very reliable. Months go past without any need for any IT support to fix anything.

They switched over to Saasu for their accounting mainly because they had multiple locations and needed staff to have access to invoicing at the same time. Xero would have been a possibility, but Saasu was (and still is) probably the easier product to use.

Recently they deployed Kounta as a point-of-sale system using ipads together with some Epson POS printers. This was mostly because Kounta supported Saasu; the alternative would have been Vend. In retrospect, Kounta isn't really designed for retailers: their home turf is restaurants and cafes. 
Having the sales report directly into Saasu automatically means that a whole chunk of head-office book-keeping has been eliminated. It's hard to imagine how this could have been done as efficiently if they were still using a on-premises copy of MYOB.
Reporting on what has been sold when has been helpful. For example, they've discovered that some of their frivolous accessory items are actually their best sellers, and they have been able to tweak their pricing as a result.
Internet access is crucial; most of the stores have an ADSL service which can fall back to a 4G service if the ADSL is not working. The original plan was to use Fritz! Boxes to do this, but the 4G modems that were available didn't actually work. It probably would have worked on something more up-market (e.g. a Huawei or Cisco) and might have provided some better diagnostic tools and would let the network be supported by a third party, but they couldn't justify the extra cost.
The procedure now is "in the event of an ADSL failure, turn off the router, and take the 4G modem out of the cupboard". Each store only has three important devices: the chromebook (mentioned before), the ipad (which is the point-of-sale system) and the receipt printer. The receipt printer is not wireless, so during ADSL outages they can't print receipts. Very few of their customers need receipts, so this isn't a big deal. Everything else will pick up on the other router.
Finally, they use Shopify for their internet ordering, again mostly because of its integration with Saasu. They use a combination of Shopify's iphone app and email to notify their staff about the order. This is then manually recorded in their point-of-sale system. Shopify also have a point-of-sale system and this might have been the best option, but Shopify charge a percentage of sales on their low-end plans and this ruled it out. No problems about this for internet sales, but for walk-in retail this seemed a bit greedy.
While there are perhaps more recurring costs (Google Apps, Kounta, Shopify, Saasu and the double internet connection at each store) than a more traditional solution, their savings do appear to more than make up for it. The end result is not enterprise-grade equipment by any means. There has been more cost-cutting and compromises than I am happy with. But the up-front costs are extremely low: lower than it would have been even to put a single good-quality server in at each store, let alone having fail-over server pairs.
Backup being one of my main interests, they only have four data repositories of any importance:
  • Accounting data in Saasu. Xero have an ecosystem of backup providers, Saasu doesn't seem to. However, if Saasu failed for any reason for the long-term, they would have a very reasonable excuse to the tax office for their lack of records. (There would in fact be thousands of businesses affected, so the tax office would have to make some declaration about how to handle it.)
  • Email and files in Google Apps. Spanning have a backup product for this with a remarkable recovery guarantee.
  • Shopify sales. They are duplicated into the point-of-sale system and into Saasu, so if Shopify disappeared there is no financial information lost. There would be customer contact information lost, so perhaps they should use the integration with Mailchimp or feed it into another CRM.
  • Sales records from Kounta. This is a bit of an area of weakness; the only option is manual exports. Vend seems to have better options here.
There are a few Windows desktops in head-office, but as the retail arm is just one part of the larger group, it's fair enough to say that the retailer is essentially server-less. While the transition away from mainframes was momentous in its time ("no tier 1 company can operate without a mainframe") and filled with multi-million dollar replacement projects, the transition away from Windows servers and maintaining internal Active Directory systems seems to be more of a slow slide. It won't be a big occasion: one day we'll wake up to discover that we've turned off the last Windows server and that nobody noticed.