Fighting Hardware Failure!

BAMM! If you saw it in a comic book, you'd think explosion. If you see it on Nasdaq it stands for Books-A-Million. But BAMM could be used to describe what happened to the $442.9 million (net sales) 200-store chain not too long ago. Books-A-Million couldn't get its hardware to work.

"At one point, the hardware failure rate was approaching 50 percent," says Cy Fenton, EVP of the quick-growing company whose superstores, Web site and wholesaling business have made it number three among brick-and-mortar book chains, Operating BAMM stores with their Joe Muggs newsstands and coffee bars (there are seven free-standing Joe Muggs coffee places), smaller Bookland stores and a slew of other ventures, BAMM can't afford dysfunctional POS terminals.

It was that early failure that led Fenton to develop a hierarchy of requirements for new hardware inside BAMM. The first requirement would be a tough one: reliability.

"We've gone through a lot of heartache in having highly unreliable equipment in our stores," says Fenton, who led the effort at the Birmingham, AL-based chain. Today, BAMM stores are the envy of the industry with hardware that fails at a fraction of the national average.

Once Fenton decided that reliability would be his first test, he determined to scrap every piece of hardware currently in use, reselling some and re-purposing others within the organization, but leaving none of the POS systems standing, regardless of their history. Fenton then quickly narrowed the field to what he considered the three most reliable systems, from IBM ( .com), Wincor Nixdorf (www. wincor-nixdorf .com) and NCR (www.ncr .com).

Don't Buy Retail

No one bargains harder than a retailer hunting for systems, so once reliability was established, Fenton focused on his second criterion: cost. The Value-Added Reseller (VAR) offering the NCR equipment dropped out fairly quickly because it couldn't compete with direct sales offered by Wincor Nixdorf and IBM. The field was then fairly even, but Wincor Nixdorf took the lead by offering to "rescue" a Books-A-Million store that was in technological failure and completing the rescue within a week. "That impressed our CEO," Fenton notes.

Although the Wincor Nixdorf BEETLE/S POS system seemed to be taking the lead, Fenton considered other factors. Scalability was important, because Fenton wanted the chosen hardware to be able to grow with the company. Because most of the BEETLE's components are replaceable inside the box, he believed the equipment had an edge. "They have parallel and serial ports, but if you decide you need USB ports, you can easily replace them," he explains.

Availability was another factor. Systems that have to be taken down for maintenance are not available to the store. The Wincor Nixdorf equipment could be repaired fairly easily without tools — something that reduces downtime. "Hard drives break a lot in POS systems because they have the most movement. This way, we can send out a new hard drive to a store and one of the 'super users' we've trained to deal with the equipment can take out the old one and plug in the new one within ten minutes, " he explains.

Although the choice of system now seemed obvious, one last factor clinched the deal. "Wincor Nixdorf makes me feel like a valued customer," Fenton says. "They worked hard to get my business and they have continued to be responsive."

Support Your Stores

Todd Budde, IT director for Irvine, CA-based Barbeques Galore Ltd., had a slightly different problem — a heterogeneous mix of PCs and printers, making it virtually impossible for the three-person IT staff to maintain equipment at the chain's 65 stores.

Budde spent time analyzing the existing equipment in an effort to determine which hardware was the most reliable and easiest to maintain. He ultimately chose to standardize on the IBM 300 GL PC, on which the company runs POS software from JDA Software Group (

The reason Budde chose the IBM platform over a similar platform from Dell Computer Corp. ( .com) was because of IBM's ability to provide local support. "With Dell, you ship it to them and they fix it, which causes downtime for the store. IBM comes to our site," he says. (Dell does provide on-site support in many instances, but price and other considerations are a factor).

His ultimate decision to use IBM equipment was directly related to IBM stability and the fact that the company had experienced fewer problems. "They also seemed to offer more business-oriented machines," he notes.

When it comes to choosing peripherals like printers and scanners, different criteria may take the lead in the decision-making process.

When Budde chose his printers, he simply chose the ones that failed the least. He ultimately chose an Oki Data ( report printer and a Star Micronics (www.starmicronics .com) SP3000 serial receipt printer. For Books-A-Million, the printer decision "was a total seat-of-the-pants deal by me," Fenton says. "I just began visiting all of the large retailers I liked, like Lowe's, Home Depot, Sears, Banana Republic, and The Gap. I noticed that most of them were using Epson ( thermal printers, so that's what we chose."

"If that's seat of the pants, then all IT managers should go with it," says retail consultant Andrew Hart. "I call it benchmarking." Speed was an important factor, however, to meet one of Fenton's goals of reducing customer waiting time. Fenton finally settled on the Epson TM-H600II. "Before, a customer would wait for ten to 15 seconds [for a receipt to print]. Now it's two seconds."

What criteria do you use in choosing hardware? Please share them with [email protected]. If we publish your criteria, you'll receive a $50 American Express gift certificate.

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