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Handheld Points of Sale - The Great Divide

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March 01, 2005
Restaurant | Handheld POS
Michael Kasavana, Ph.D., CHTP - kasavana@pilot.msu.edu

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© 2005 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

As restaurant technology developers have struggled to move guest services and staff functionality to mobile devices, there has been a separation in approach among product suppliers. While the majority of handheld suppliers remain resolute that the portable device be designed as a miniature of the larger POS terminal it replaces, at least one firm has taken a different approach preferring to use handwriting recognition as a more intuitive and logical approach to tableside POS operation.

For more than two decades, the appeal of a handheld point of sale (POS) device has fascinated the restaurant industry. Imagine a versatile, mobile, capable tool designed to enhance speed of service while tightening operational controls. So why hasn’t the restaurant industry rushed to adopt the efficiencies afforded by moving from a conventional POS station to handheld terminals? Well, the answer is somewhat complex, clouded partly by the shortcomings of initial portable offerings, a lack of technical standards, and adherence to the notion that a mobile terminal had to mimic a stationary POS device. All this despite the fact the fixed POS station suffered its own design complexities over the past 20 years.

As restaurant technology developers have struggled to move guest services and staff functionality to mobile devices, there has been a separation in approach among product suppliers. While the majority of handheld suppliers remain resolute that the portable device be designed as a miniature of the larger POS terminal it replaces, at least one firm has taken a different approach preferring to use handwriting recognition as a more intuitive and logical approach to tableside POS operation. Comparing a handheld terminal (HHT) to a traditional POS application provides a strong base for consideration of touchscreen drill down or handwriting recognition mobile POS devices.

Traditional POS
Pen and pad is the basic form of order taking in a traditional restaurant utilizing a fixed POS terminal system. An order is first transcribed tableside and then the server approaches a stationary POS device to enter and transmit the guest’s order to the production area. It is only at the time of order placement that the server will learn of out-of-stock items or incompleteness in preparation (modifier) selection. It is also possible that during order entry the server may accidentally omit a guest’s order or enter an order twice since the server is not tableside at the time of entry. Once sent to the kitchen, the guest’s order will be produced per specified parameters. This is not the case when a handheld device is used for order entry as recordation and transmission take place tableside. While there are no firm industry standards, it appears that three to six servers are likely assigned to a fixed station POS terminal during busy shifts with table orders typically taking an average of 30 to 240 seconds per table.

HHT Evolution
Initially handheld devices relied on numeric keypads and price look up (PLU) data to identify menu items during order entry. This rendered the process cumbersome and tedious because necessary preparation modifiers could not be transmitted to the production area and elective modifiers were not available.

Once wireless was perceived as an efficient transportation mode an infrared transmitter and receiver were added to the mix. Inherent problems with line of sight and distance limitations quickly revealed the weaknesses of infrared in the order entry process. Additional problems related to size, weight, battery life, readability, functionality and training time received much criticism. More appropriate and effective products emerged as radio frequency transmission was seen as a feasible platform, combined with the advancement in pocket PC design. Currently there are two forms of handheld POS design: touchscreen drill down and handwriting recognition.

The majority of handheld POS units in the marketplace are touchscreen drill down devices intended to be miniature representations of the stationary POS terminal they replace. (See Figure 1.) A touchscreen drill down handheld is characterized by selection buttons presented as a series of screens, of pages, whereby the selection of one button leads to the availability of more buttons until the desired menu item is located. For example, searching for the menu item lasagna may require selection of the entrée icon first, then the pasta selection icon, then the house specialty icon and eventually the lasagna icon. This multi-stage process can be more or less efficient depending on presentation format and system logic. The alternative is the handwriting recognition POS device. The intent of the recently developed handheld device built on handwriting recognition technology is to allow the server to literally write-on the screen (usually a character or shorthand code) similar to the mechanics of the non-automated pen and pad order taking routine but with stylus and screen.

POS Order Entry
A stationary terminal requires a server to record an order tableside then travel to the POS device for order entry. Assuming a reasonable waiting time to access the terminal (as it is likely to serve numerous waitstaff) the server then proceeds to enter the order. It is at the time of order entry that the server may receive a system alert (filtered actionable information). After completing the order entry process, the server returns to his/her service station and awaits notification of order completion.

One of the objectives of a handheld POS is to eliminate the inefficiencies of the traditional, fixed terminal POS process. In a double entry process the server takes the order tableside, typically writes on a pad, and then enters the order at a POS terminal. With this type of operation the server must secure the customer’s preferences associated with each menu item’s forced modifiers. In addition, the server must be knowledgeable to accurately respond to potential customer optional modifiers and accompaniments. Should the kitchen run out of an item, the server will likely not be aware of the unavailability and not learn of the outage until the point of order entry or thereafter. In this case the server would have to return to the table to inform the customer and request a replacement item. As a follow-up, there is no component part of the fixed POS that notifies the server when the order is ready or if there are production problems that may hinder timely service.

Too often handheld POS devices are criticized as orienting the server to the device and away from the guest, like a pencil and pad order taking scheme. While this criticism is more likely attributable to touchscreen handheld devices, part of the attraction of a handwriting recognition device is to enable the server to stay focused on the guest. With a handheld POS device there is no need for double entry and thereby travel time to a fixed POS is eliminated. In addition, alerts advise servers in real time of limited item availability and are programmed to prompt servers to request guest’s response to modifiers and potential upselling or cross-selling opportunities. A reduction of failed order entry (out of stock or incomplete preparation instruction) represents a significant service advantage. Servers will spend more time on the floor, increasing selling opportunities and table turns, with checks printed and settled tableside.

Taking an order tableside can change the order entry routine to a single entry process. A wireless handheld device can help reduce many of the potential errors or omissions associated with a double entry POS terminal system. For example, the potential problems associated with forced modifiers, out of stock menu items and elective modifiers can be eliminated. In addition, server travel time from tableside to POS terminal as well as line waiting to access the POS device and possible transference issues associated with double entry are also gone. In addition to improving the double entry process, a single entry routine may also provide for upselling opportunities, fewer missed sales and increased table turnover. Lastly, the space created as a result of removing a fixed POS terminal will likely support additional dining opportunities. As a result, servers are able to spend more time in an assigned service area providing better service and a basis for upselling as substitutable items provide additional revenue opportunities. A single entry POS requires less training time as servers are trained to record orders tableside with the help of lead-through programming. In addition, servers and staff can send and receive messages in real time.

POS Comparisons
While the list of possible comparison criteria may be extensive, there are at least six areas of importance when comparing conventional POS, handheld touchscreen drill down POS and handwritten recognition POS devices. Each of the six criteria is reviewed briefly below.

Menu Orientation
A conventional POS system is capable of handling a complex and extensive menu composed of meal periods (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and special events such as banquets, catering or happy hour. Given the limited screen display capacity and capabilities of handheld devices, only a limited number of menu items can be reasonably represented. A touchscreen drill down handheld application likely will be more constrained in its item handling as each item will occupy space on either one or more display screens. A handwritten recognition format provides the flexibility to handle more menu items as menu items are coded and not displayed in a deterministic manner, unless requested through indexing.

User Interface
A conventional POS terminal typically features a menu driven color touchscreen interface capable of servicing one server at a time. Typically three to six servers are assigned to the same POS device, thereby creating the potential for lineups and waiting times. A touchscreen drill down handheld device relies on a multi-screen modified menu presentation due to display limitations, while a handwritten recognition device is capable of handling a broader array of menu items as items are coded and not displayed without inquiry.

Data Format
In a traditional touchscreen POS device menu items are typically grouped by course or service categories with refinements delineated in a drill down format. For example, selecting the entrée category, followed by selection of the Sizzling Steaks category, followed by selection of the desired entrée New York Strip Steak. In a touchscreen drill down handheld application items can be similarly sequenced as selected buttons lead to serial pagination. In the case of the handwritten recognition application items can be randomly selected based on written alpha coding of products. Menu items can be indexed, for example, based on the first letter of each menu item. The server, writing the letter “N”, will find a display of all menu items beginning with the letter “N”. The server then selects the desired entrée.

Service Focus
A stationary terminal requires servers to travel to the POS device to enter guest orders. Since the order is not entered tableside the server may learn that a desired menu item is out of stock and/or that the guest was not queried with respect to a forced modifier, both of which will require a return visit to the table. Both the touchscreen drill down and handwritten recognition systems involve tableside order entry, with the possibility of immediate notification of stock outs and modifiers, thereby rendering the process as more efficient.

POS Processing
A conventional POS terminal system necessitates a double-entry order process in that the guest’s order is initially recorded tableside, away from the automated system, then subsequently entered into the stationary device for transmittal to the production area. A touchscreen drill down handheld requires the server to use a logical sequence lookup and therefore has been described as a device-centric application while the handwritten recognition device is intended to mirror pen and pad and therefore may allow for a more guest-centric approach.

Operational Alerts
An alert is described as filtered information that is actionable. For example, a guest check has been open for an extended period of time, or a VIP is in-house, or there is a staff shortage, or overtime is nearing. Fixed POS terminals have limited capability for operational alert notification since servers are not stationed within close proximity to the device. Handheld units possess the capability to notify servers of events in real-time and therefore can have a greater impact on successful operations.

POS Issues
While the adoption of handheld POS devices has tremendous potential for tableside order entry, it is not without its challenges. Part of the industry’s slow adoption of handheld POS devices, stems from poor early attempts to produce POS software in miniature, on a mobile touchscreen device. Despite the fact POS software often is considered clumsy on the larger format terminal, but manufacturers consider server transition is facilitated by maintaining the sequential pagination common to touchscreen order entry logic. As sophisticated handheld terminal systems have emerged, restaurateurs now have an alternative format to touchscreen drill down devices; devices built on handwriting recognition technology.

Important metrics for POS device consideration include:

  1. Speed of Service -- single or double entry processing
  2. Portability -- mobile or stationary operating unit
  3. Accessibility -- single user or multi-user access
  4. Cost -- fixed terminal or handheld device
  5. Training -- freeform recognition or drill down sequential
  6. Settlement -- tableside or remote processing

Mobile Payment Technology
A recent development in handheld POS technology provides a means to present, print, and settle guest checks tableside. By mobilizing the entire settlement process, including credit card swiping and wireless account approval through a handheld POS device, guests gain a greater sense of security. Servers no longer need to leave the table with a guest’s credit card; now all processing and account reconciliation is done in view of the guest. Concerns over potential fraudulent use of credit/debit card information are reduced since the card does not leave the table area. In addition, for those guests in a hurry, settlement can be completed in seconds; not minutes.

Conventional POS terminals have played, and will continue to play a significant role in restaurant management. There are many opportunities for handheld POS devices to enhance guest services and management is encouraged to investigate the potentiality of both touchscreen drill down and handwritten recognition technology. The appeal of wireless portable transaction devices has never been greater; be sure to investigate this application area.

Michael Kasavana, Ph.D., CHTP, is NAMA Professor in Hospitality Business, School of Hospitality Business, Michigan State University. He can be reached at kasavana@pilot.msu.edu .

HHT POS Advantages
Benefits of handheld POS terminals

  • Remote Ordering — no time lost in fixed terminal waiting
  • Improved Service — servers spend more time on the floor
  • Functionality — possesses complete POS capabilities
  • Accurate Orders — menu items prepared to preference
  • Table Management — coordination of seated and open tables
  • Productivity — reduced kitchen traffic and documented order entry
  • Communication — rapid broadcast ability with more precision
  • Wait List Management — timely updates of speed of service
  • Upselling — created with on-the-fly substitutable options
  • Table Turns — increased turns mean higher customer counts
  • Secure Settlement — tableside printing and settlement
  • Speed of Service — enhanced by tableside operations
  • Chain and Fire — allows server to adjust speed of service
  • Time/Attendance — knowledge of signed in, working staff
  • Management — access to functions are staff member specific
  • Training — more intuitive than stationary POS products

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