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Shopping for a Counter Computer

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Dry cleaning neon
(Photo: © iStockphoto/John DeFeo)

INDIANAPOLIS — You don’t have to look far to realize the wide range of computer choices that cleaners have. Having more options is great. In many ways, the ability to choose allows you to find the best-fitting computer system.

But that same range of choices can easily be overwhelming, too. It contributes to the fear that you may choose the wrong computer. From a cost view, computers can take a sizable percentage of your total operating budget. A good choice will lead to where costs, compared to returns, are minimal. The gains you experience are far above whatever you paid.

Writing this column takes me back, I hate to admit, about 20 years. I was with a small company that focused on “contract programming.” This is back when most companies had what were called mini, or mainframe, computers. PCs were just coming out. There was no universally accepted operating system.

Our company saw the gains that PCs were making, and that the day was coming when medium-sized and small companies would not need our programming support, source of our main income. So we looked at niche markets we considered to be underserved and that could use our acquired experience (most of which was in manufacturing and inventory). We didn’t have much counter experience, but most computers then didn’t have a clue about how to set up and manage a two-step sale.

For the most part, shopping for and buying a counter computer system has not changed.

There are people (not me, for good or bad) who, before entering a grocery store, have their coupons ready and know the best route to get everything done as quickly as possible. They are far more prepared to spend a hundred dollars than you may be to spend $5,000 to $50,000 on a computer.

Most cleaners go to a trade show or phone a company and when they get a salesperson, their first words are usually, “Well, whatcha got here?” Ironically, that is the same question they used on the system they hate today. If it didn’t work five years ago, why will it work now?

The guy who plans the complete route and knows the coupon items most likely gets in and out having everything he wants at a discount. The difference is planning.

Who do you want to be in control of deciding which system you buy, you or the salesperson? It will be the salesperson if you start with “whatcha got” again.

I have no alliance with any computer company. But when I did, I would start with some flashy, mostly useless feature. You get home with your bag of brochures, lay them out on a table and try to remember which one had the horn sound every time the cash drawer was opened and which one had the cameras so you could see what was happening at the counter from your office. If you shop that way, you risk ending up with five more years of payments and a computer you don’t like.

If you are in business, most often the goal is to make the most profit in an industry you like, while running your business your way. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And as such, much of what I’ve written is with the idea that you are in charge.

To maintain that control, I suggest you follow dry cleaning pieces and laundry pieces as they are processed. There are some critical areas to analyze, with the first being the counter. Do you give a detailed receipt or a quick ticket? What would you like to do that you cannot today because your current system was not designed to handle it? At each step, write down what you have and, maybe more importantly, what you want. Identify the strengths and weaknesses in your current set-up.

Your computer at the counter is a customer’s first experience. Whether new or long-time regular, it is the first experience for them on this visit. I have always warned that the worst place to try saving a couple bucks is by shorting the counter stations. My example is the cleaner who sets up three stations with everything each person needs, then provides one pen for all to share.

Track everything. If you skip a step, inevitably it will be the one that bites back the hardest. Study your mark-in and pricing: where it is done, all details of your options currently charged, or that you would like to.

Remember commercial accounts, routes, if you do restoration work. Are there permanent discounts or permanent upcharges? Can it support automatic assembly? Do you want to bar-code garments or rack locations?

It is possible to write a book on pricing and still miss some method. The important factor is knowing what you require.

Never underestimate the importance of support. A great support team can get you up and running quickly. One that takes days or weekends off can be a problem. When your computer is not running, you will take longer to enter tickets manually and you’ll open yourself up to theft and loss of pieces that a computer would normally catch.

I have one last, simple question: who is going to have a higher degree of success in finding the perfect system for their business? Will it be the cleaner who calls a computer company and asks, “Whatcha got?” Or will it be their competitor who calls the same computer company, sends a list of what they require in a system, and then asks, “How do you do this?”

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