Many a small business can relate to Jesse Waldman when he says that his company, Pistils Nursery in Portland, Oregon, operated for many years “on instincts rather than data.”  The company would, for example, stock up on ceramic planters “when it felt like we were getting low or they seemed to be selling well.”

Sometimes the results of poor instincts are obvious – too much or too little inventory on hand, for example. But other times, there is simply no way to tell whether the decisions you make based on instinct are really the best ones – until a change in the way you operate opens your eyes to all that you’ve been missing.

For Pistils Nursery, that change began with a very basic technology upgrade: it swapped out its analog cash register in favor of an iPad. “The register was more than a decade old and took up too much of our very limited counter space,” says Waldman, the company’s head of Brand Development. “So we bought an iPad and put it in a nice wooden stand we found on Etsy, and that began to change a lot of things about how we operate.”

The biggest change was the ability to move to an inventory management system in which, rather than cluster several hundred items into just five or six broad category codes, the company could assign a name and price to every item. That comes in handy when you sell 30 different kinds of planters and 405 total items (and counting).

Pistils’s improved inventory tracking has been greatly enhanced by using ShopKeep as the point of sale (POS) system tied to the iPad. “We saw right away that we needed a company that could provide the help and support we needed to get smarter about inventory management, one that could grow with us, and one that would interface with our current credit card processor. Only ShopKeep met all three criteria,” Waldman says.

Meanwhile, on the counter, the iPad isn’t just a next-generation cash register: customers are free to use it to research plants and get garden design ideas, and to sign up for the company’s email newsletter, which has had a major impact on the business. “Our email list, which integrates very nicely with ShopKeep, has become the most important piece of our customer communications puzzle,” Waldman says. “Every time we send out a newsletter we see an uptick in sales, website traffic, and workshop attendance.”

The company’s tech-enabled customer outreach isn’t limited to email, however. Given the visual nature of the nursery’s business, Instagram has emerged as an invaluable social media platform. The nursery can showcase its products and even hold contests, which Waldman says has “generated lots of engagement and interaction with the brand.”

“Eighteen months after we moved to the iPad/ShopKeep combination,” he says, “the business is almost unrecognizable in terms of how we generate data to inform purchasing, staffing, and the customer experience. The ShopKeep Dashboard lets us easily track transaction details by hour, day, per customer, and other criteria.”

In assessing the dollar amount of the average transaction, Pistils has realized that this is one of its key metrics. “We’ve set goals with the staff to try and raise this number,” Waldman says, “because when you’re a small business, every cent counts.”  It’s working: a typical transaction this past holiday season ran more than 12 percent higher than the year before, and total monthly sales are now about 30 percent higher year over year. Pistils can also use ShopKeep to track both its cost and retail price for every item, allowing it to assess the margin for each. “We’ve definitely been able to save money and increase our profit by seeing this data for every item,’ Waldman says.

As for the future, Waldman is confident that Pistils will never again have to make the sort of seismic shift it experienced in moving from an analog cash register to an iPad POS system, a not-insignificant advantage given how fast the world of electronic payments is evolving. “I was in the grocery store not long ago,” he says, “and I saw someone use Apple Pay, and I thought, ‘Whoa, this is happening!’”

Pistils has already upgraded its card reader to be able to accept Apple Pay, along with the EMV chip cards that will become ubiquitous in the U.S. in October of this year. ShopKeep President and CEO Norm Merritt underscores that this is a real trend. “Retail is changing fast,” he says. “For a long time, it seemed like local businesses were fighting a losing battle against better-equipped big-box retailers. But the last few years have seen more and more Main Street businesses like Pistils Nursery really stepping forward and leading the charge when it comes to embracing new technology early.”

Waldman agrees. “Having this reader and the right technology in general just makes us feel confident that we’re ready for anything. When you look at the wild success of the iPhone and all the things people use their smartphones to do, it seems clear that new ways of paying for things will soon become the norm. In the same way that customers appreciate our switch to the iPad for how it improves their experience, I look forward to seeing how new payment technology can help us grow.”


Alissa McCue

Alissa McCue

Alissa McCue has over 10 years of marketing and public relations experience working for top brands in retail and technology. As Senior Manager of Public Relations at ShopKeep, a leading iPad Point of Sale System, Alissa is focused on highlighting ShopKeep's major achievements and thought leadership in the POS and technology space for independent businesses.