Contributing to Apple’s successful rebirth, however, has been the adoption of its sleek devices in places just like Mr. Bill’s — independently owned restaurants, shops and other small retailers. And facilitating that adoption have been apps like ShopKeep, which Mr. Bill’s and Sweet Temptations, a bakery and cafe on U.S. 43 North in Northport, are using to turn the iPad into a full-fledged, point-of-sale service, capable of instantly managing transactions, books and inventory.
“We’re an Apple family,” says Michael Parrish from behind the counter of Mr. Bill’s Kountry Kooking. Mr. Bill’s, a traditional Southern meat-and-three restaurant on U.S. Highway 82 in Northport, is probably the last place you’d expect to hear talk like this. After all, the wood paneling and well-worn floor of the restaurant Parrish’s father started nearly 20 years ago are a far cry from the polished Apple stores selling the electronics company’s popular Mac computers, iPad tablets and iPhones. Contributing to Apple’s successful rebirth, however, has been the adoption of its sleek devices in places just like Mr. Bill’s — independently owned restaurants, shops and other small retailers. And facilitating that adoption have been apps like ShopKeep, which Mr. Bill’s and Sweet Temptations, a bakery and cafe on U.S. 43 North in Northport, are using to turn the iPad into a full-fledged, point-of-sale service, capable of instantly managing transactions, books and inventory.
Parrish sat down at a booth about 20 feet away from the front counter on a recent Friday morning. In his hand was an iPad, mounted firmly to a stand that usually rests securely on top of a cash drawer.
“Let me show you how it works,” he said of the ShopKeep system he installed a few months ago. He woke the iPad from sleep mode, tapped the ShopKeep app icon on the tablet computer’s home screen and up popped a screen resembling a colorful but complex calculator. “Let’s say you order the chicken fingers,” Parrish said, before tapping a button on the screen labeled “chicken fingers, three sides.” The menu item immediately popped up in a list above the button before Parrish added a drink to the order. “If you’re paying with a $20 bill, I hit the cash button there and …,” just then, like magic, the cash drawer across the room popped open with a loud “bing.” A moment later, a receipt printed from a device on the counter. Behind this seemingly magical system is some pretty simple networking. The iPad is connected via WiFi to the restaurant’s secure Internet network. Via a wired connection, the receipt printer resides on the network, as well, and the cash drawer is connected to the printer. In all, the system takes about 10 minutes to set up.
For small business, by a small business
Back in 2008, Amy Bennett and her husband Jason Richelson took a long-needed vacation from tending The Greene Grape, a grocery/wine shop/coffee shop with three locations in Brooklyn, N.Y. During the trip, computer servers in two of their stores that handle and store all of the transactions went down.
“My husband had to call in to the stores and stay on the phone for a few hours until we got the servers back up and running,” Bennett said. “And that’s not very fun because for those few hours our stores weren’t making any money. We were effectively closed.“ Bennett said her husband started thinking of a solution. “He said ’We use Gmail and all of these other cloud-based systems to run our business. Why doesn’t someone do a point-of-sale (system) that’s in the cloud and that’s Web-based?“
The “cloud” is a term used for storing data on a server accessible via a website or app. Gmail or Hotmail users, those who post pictures to Facebook or Flickr or use the file-sharing service Dropbox, are already using the cloud. Bennett and Richelson wanted a cloud-based point-of-sale system because it would allow them to access their data from any device that can connect to the Internet. It would also remove the worry of a local server going down due to a power outage or other unforeseen event. “We looked around for a service like that but the only ones we could find failed to keep transactions should you lose an Internet connection, which puts you back at square one,” she said. “So he decided to create ShopKeep.“
In less than three years, the point-of-sale system was a reality. Early this year, Bennett and Richelson released a beta version of the ShopKeep software to a few hundred small businesses. Using it, retailers and vendors can run the cloud-synchronizing software from a Mac or PC, including laptops that can run on battery power in the event of a power outage. And if an Internet connection is lost, the device running ShopKeep continues to store transaction data locally until the connection is restored. At that point, the gap is filled in and normal syncing resumes — and no sales are lost. But ShopKeep can do more than track and store transactions.
Among its other features, the service also can track inventory, rank items according to how well they sell, scan barcodes, swipe debit and credit cards, provide remote access, and track sales numbers for just about any period of time. It’s automatic bookkeeping and it’s all accessible via ShopKeep’s BackOffice website or the BackOffice iPhone app. Bennett said her husband got the idea to bring the software to the iPad, with its user-friendly, multi-touch display, in November.
The development of the iPad app took only a few months, Bennett said, and Parrish was one of the early testers of the beta version. The ShopKeep iPad app came out of beta in August, when it officially launched on Apple’s App Store. The ShopKeep software and app are free but business owners pay a monthly subscription to the service, which varies between $50 and $130 based on which devices are used and how many registers the business operates. While that price may seem steep, Parrish and Sweet Temptations co-owner Kris Duffey said they no longer have to spend hours adding up transactions or paying people to do the task, which will mean long-term savings. The start-up expense is also comparatively low. Parrish said the hardware setup cost about $900, a fraction of the $20,000 he said many point-of-sale systems cost.
Behind the scenes
The efficiency in ringing up sales with ShopKeep is a strong selling point, but both Parrish and Duffey said the BackOffice feature is their favorite aspect of the system.
“We have a great menu item here, smoked chicken wings,” Parrish said. “I’ve always thought they were delicious but for some reason they weren’t selling. I’d keep checking the BackOffice rankings for our items and they would always be near the bottom of the list.“ So Parrish started trying new ways to promote the smoked wings and slowly but surely he watched them place higher and higher on the list. “In the past, to gauge popularity, we had to go to the kitchen and ask the cooks to estimate how many of each item they were preparing, which isn’t a very exact way to track things,” he said.
Duffey, who owns Sweet Temptations along with Cindy Brandt and Jeannine Quilliams, learned about ShopKeep from her father. “We hadn’t even opened yet. My dad was doing some research over the Internet on point-of-sale systems and he showed me how you can set up your own buttons for different things that you sell, and that it calculates sales,” she said. “My dad actually gave us his iPad to use and we’ve been using it as the register. The great thing is we don’t have to write anything down anymore. It’s all online.“ Duffey echoed Parrish’s appreciation for sales rankings. She said the iPhone app is a great feature, as well. “Say I’m at home or out of state, I can still check on how things are going at the store by just opening up the iPhone app,” she said. The app allows ShopKeep users to check daily sales and other statistics. “It’s in real time. If somebody’s here ringing up an order and I’m in California, it’s automatically going to update. It’s really easy.“
Already with two users in Northport, ShopKeep is taking off. Bennett said the company sees between 50 and 100 sign-ups for the service each day, likely because of the 30-day free trial the company offers business owners. “That’s actually a pretty big innovation. Used to be, you’d have to spend thousands of dollars up front without knowing what you were getting,” she said. “Now that it’s available through the App Store for free, that’s how a small business like Mr. Bill’s can start using our software.“
Bennett said ShopKeep is developing Android apps, as well. She added that she is happy to see the company helping people accomplish a shared dream. “I know I’m one of the founders, but I’m also a small business owner. This frees up the small business owner from having to be there all the time,” she said. “And the only way you’re able to grow it is if you can actually get out of the store on occasion.”