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What's Really in the Palm of Your Hand?

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October 01, 2001
Point of Sale | Technology
Andrew Sichynsky - asichynsky@postec.com

© 2001 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction or transmission without written permission.

There are many things that can affect the performance of wireless technology. Make sure you have the vendor test your location. Even with extensive testing things can still go wrong. I speak from personal experience.

Every couple of years or so there seems to be major improvement in the communication and hardware technology behind handheld POS terminals. Coinciding with this (fueled of course by the marketing hype of manufacturers) is a resurgence of interest by restaurateurs as being the panacea to their problems ranging from speed of service, reducing labor costs and providing the ultimate guest experience. Having worked for several manufacturers, all carrying a handheld solution, I have seen time and time again the wide-eyed manager or owner come into a trade show booth, pick up a demo unit and explain to his colleagues, in great detail, how this technology will solve all of their problems.

If this article is starting to sound a bit skeptical, that is not my intention. I currently make a living selling POS systems, including handhelds. What I do want to convey, however, is that even with great improvements to technology in handhelds, such as first using infrared technology with proprietary operating systems to now using spread-spectrum communications and Windows CE, some basic truths and considerations must be reviewed before deciding that a handheld POS system is the right solution for you.

Some things to consider:

• Cost of ownership. If you have 10 to 15 waiters working the floor at any given time, you will need to purchase 10 to 15 handheld units, as opposed to maybe two or three stationary POS touchscreen terminals. You will also need to add an additional set of batteries (so you can cycle one set for charging), a charging station(s) and perhaps holsters for each user. This is in addition to the fixed equipment overhead, which typically requires a base communication station, or repeaters, irrespective if you have only one handheld or several. Some systems require that you purchase an additional software module in addition to the base POS software.

• Printers and printing. One of the basic arguments for buying a handheld system is that it saves trips by the waiter and keeps him out on the floor or at his station. Well that’s great until it’s time to print a guest check or credit card receipt. Unless you want to outfit your handheld with a printer option (and many systems allow you to do this, adding more to the cost of each unit) you will have to place printers around your restaurant where waiters can get at their print outs. If the waiter is already making a trip to pick up a printed receipt, he might as well go to a stationary POS terminal and enter that order for the other table that just sat down next to the table for which he printed a guest check. Once multiple service cycles start for different tables, there is no real reduction in trips unless of course your handheld has a printer attached. Don’t forget also that in order for the waiter to get that credit card receipt, your handheld unit must also be outfitted with a credit card reader, once again adding to the cost of each unit. Also, make sure that you see one of these handheld units outfitted with all the batteries, printers and magnetic card readers you require and make sure that this is what you want your waiters to carry around. Does car rental return agent ring a bell?

• Speed of service. Yes, the handheld terminal (depending on the style of operation) does save trips and gets orders into the kitchen faster, but make sure you take time to see how many keystrokes it takes a waiter to enter an order from your menu and not a demo database. Remember that screen space is at a minimum on a handheld and the more choices and preparation instructions you have in your menu, the more time the waiter will have to page through screens to get to the right key. Many times a full-screen stationary touchscreen is much faster in processing all types of transactions, not only food and drink orders, and offsets any time gained by entering the order at the table via a handheld.

• Cost of employment. Handheld units, depending on how they are configured, can range in price from $1,500 to $2,500 on average. The person you are entrusting this technology to is being paid minimum wage. When that individual drops the unit on the floor, and inevitably they will, who will pay for the repair? Damaged units due to negligence are usually never covered under a service contract. It will be difficult to find staff to come to work for you if you make it their responsibility to pay for damage. Speaking of service contracts, make sure you take the time and understand the terms fully. Some vendors have different rules for handheld repairs and some will only repair them on a time and material basis and not cover them under a service contract at all.

• Guest experience. This is rather subjective. Some people will argue that having the waiter place the order immediately and getting the food out quickly enhances the guest experience. Personally, I would much rather have the waiter interacting with me and looking at me when listening to my order instead of looking down at a terminal poking around in a transaction. Call me old-fashioned. How many times have you seen a restaurant patron change his mind in mid-sentence when he orders food? Ultimately it’s your restaurant and you will run it as you see fit.

• Environment. There are many things that can affect the performance of wireless technology. Make sure you have the vendor test your location. Even with extensive testing things can go wrong. I speak from personal experience. A stadium, which shall remain nameless, enjoyed a successful installation of a handheld system and greatly improved the level of service to their “high-end” season ticket holders. Then came the Super Bowl, with all of the TV networks and their satellite and communications technology. They literally drowned out the wireless handheld system. At a time when this user needed it most, the system would not operate. Make sure you think of all the environmental scenarios your operation may be exposed to.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have seen many successful handheld POS installations. Stadium club seating, resort hotel beach or pool service, bowling alleys, large, packed night clubs, and others. However, these types of operations have very unique needs and circumstances where the augmentation of a stationary touchscreen POS system with handheld technology addressed some very specific problems. But to base an entire POS system on handheld technology for an entire operation, especially a traditional operating style restaurant, requires dedication and a generous budget. I have seen some restaurants implement this successfully, but only after they have thought and worked through many of the points I have just mentioned.

Andrew Sichynsky is director of sales & marketing for Postec, Inc./POSWarehouse.com. He can be reached at asichynsky@postec.com or (800) 783-9413 ext. 123.

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