Portable POS Success

By Tammy Mastroberte | April 08, 2009

In today's increasingly wireless world, the benefits for dropping the cords on technology are endless. Savvy restaurant operators see these advantages, and many now use wireless point-of-sale (POS) applications in their establishments. The increased order accuracy, faster table turns and customer satisfaction alone make the technology worthwhile, not to mention easing the fear of identity theft when the credit card is swiped on a handheld at the customer's table.

However, as with any technology, there are keys to ensuring a successful installation. Whenever wireless comes into the picture, security is always a concern. Add credit cards to the scenario, and PCI compliance rears its head. Many operators leave much of the installation work to their solution provider, but there is still the task of choosing the right vendors.

"When we opened two and a half years ago, we had a software provider that wasn't a good experience," says Paul Shenkman, owner of Sam's Chowder House (www.samschowderhouse.com) in Half Moon Bay, Calif. "It kept crashing. It wasn't reliable. It didn't send orders or would drop them."

After six months, Shenkman decided to keep the handhelds, which were Symbol from Motorola (www.motorola.com), but switched to a new software provider, Digital Dining from Menusoft Systems Corp. (www.digitaldining.com). 

"You need to have the right provider for both software and hardware, and research is necessary," explains Shenkman. "I got a list of all the restaurants in my area using Digital Dining and talked to them. I went to the restaurants and saw the product in action. That convinced me they were the ones." 

A point on access points
Depending on the size of the space, the amount of bandwidth and access points needed can vary. All 61 locations of la Madeleine Bakery, Café & Bistro (www.lamadeleine.com) need only one wireless router per store.  At each location, one host greets customers at the door and uses a handheld to take sandwich or pasta orders for the kitchen before the customer gets to the counter, according to Laurel Brackenridge, director of IT at the Dallas, Texas-based company.

"We only need one access point because the host is fairly static and the buildings are not very big," she says. "Sometimes we have to relocate them and will move [the access point] around a bit. It is important to do a site survey with the hardware provider, and if they show you areas where the signal is weak, then make sure to purchase multiple access points."

La Madeleine's uses MICROS POS systems (www.micros.com), along with Symbol 8846 handhelds and routers, which Brackenridge explains is the way to go rather than mixing and matching providers.

"In theory, Symbol hardware will work better with Symbol access points," she notes. "You want to make sure you are thinking about the fact that the access points and handhelds need to work together, and even if you have to pay more money, it is worth it."

At Sam's Chowder House, the restaurant is 8,000 square feet, with seating inside and outside, so three wireless routers cover the entire area. The same is true at Backwoods Steakhouse (www.backwoodsbbq.com) in Corona, Calif., also using Digital Dining software.

"We started with two routers, but we were having trouble with the signal on our patio so we had to add a third one," says Steve Nolan, owner of the Backwoods, who is using six handheld POS units at his location.

Setting up security
Any time credit cards become involved in an operation, so does PCI compliance, the standards set by the major credit card companies to ensure data security and avoid identity theft and other compromises. The first step as a restaurant operator is to make sure the devices chosen from the vendor are PCI compliant, and the second step is making sure the network data is traveling on is safe from hacking.

At Backwoods, Nolan not only had the vendor check and install the network and equipment, but also had another computer technician come in and make sure the network for Digital Dining could not be accessed outside of the application. Although some restaurants, including Nolan's, do not process credit cards on the handhelds, if credit cards are processed anywhere in the building, PCI is still a concern, says Brackenridge.

"You need to have a good firewall and monitor the traffic to make sure no one is trying to hit your network," Brackenridge notes. "You need to stay up-to-date with PCI Compliance and at least be compliant, if not go above and beyond it."

At Vicky's of Santa Fe (www.vickysofsantafe.com), owner Mark Laliberte went through his network provider, TimeWarner for his security needs, including having a firewall installed. The company uses four handhelds and Digital Dining software, and since upgrading his 12-year-old POS system, securing credit card information is no longer an issue since the system doesn't store any data, explains Laliberte.

"The old system stored all the credit card numbers and expiration dates, but now everything goes directly to the credit card processors," he says. "There is nothing in my computer system anymore, and even the credit card slips no longer have the number or expiration date."

It is also helpful to run credit card processing over a dedicated network, which is the approach Shenkman took at Sam's Chowder House. Not only is the data encrypted and secure, but it travels on a different network than the Wi-Fi network available to customers, or the corporate network.

Hardware care
Going beyond data security, it is also important to secure the actual handhelds. "Symbol sells an option that allows for the device to be disabled if it leaves the network area," says la Madeleine's Brackenridge, who encourages operators to make sure the device is not charged in a public place, and is locked up at night.

"We explained the consequences to our managers for losing the handhelds," she explains, emphasizing the importance of having a maintenance plan in place when starting to go wireless. It's important to have a repair process, understand how much money you will need to spend on repairs, and plan for extra handhelds in case one or more goes down, she says.

"You need to think about the resources it will take for your helpdesk, and if you want to outsource maintenance. Right now, if a handheld goes down, we walk through things with a Symbol representative on the phone and then we try to fix it in our corporate office. If they can't fix it, then we send it to Symbol," she explains.

But most importantly, the terms of security are always changing and operators need to stay on top of the requirements as they change. "You need to meet the requirements immediately so there is no breach," says Brackenridge.

When executed correctly, wireless POS applications will pay off in the end. "The handhelds decreased the cashier time by 20 percent, or 8 seconds per transaction," she says.

And at Backwoods, customers can order a drink at their table, and it is waiting for the server by the time he or she walks back to the bar to pick it up.

"It saves a lot of labor and expedites service," concludes Nolan.

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