Auckland-based AdvanceRetail has sold its retail management software in 14 countries, including Canada, China and Cambodia.
The company has a team of 15 developers working in Visual Basic, Visual Studio, .Net and SQL server. “The technology we use is pretty rugged and foolproof,” says managing director Mark McGeachen.
“The retail industry has a very high staff turnover rate and the applications have to be easy to learn.”
Andrew Bell, CTO of Advance Retail, says that his team has shaped its own development process.
“We have taken agile development and the Rational Unified Process [RUP is an iterative software development process created by Rational, now a division of IBM] and have formed our own development methodology from out of that”, says McGeachen.
This new methodology will take the core points from each of those processes and also adapt the process to the people that are actually doing it, says McGeachan. To achieve the most efficient development, the process has to fit the developers.
When Bell joined the company ten years ago he was one of five staff, writing code out of a garage in New Lynn.
Today, the company has 40 staff and is competing against much bigger players, for example US retail vendors.
“And we are winning deals over them,” he says. “This is Kiwi software on a world stage. That’s where I get my kicks from.”
AdvanceRetail’s software has, from the start, been developed to be an international product, and was built so it could run in many different languages, such as Chinese, says Bell.
That required a database that supported the technology and development tools that allow the support to be installed relatively easily, given that the company didn’t have that many fluent Chinese-speaking developers, says Bell.
This investment has paid off and has helped the company penetrate the Asian market.
Because retail is, traditionally, not an avant-garde technology industry, and because the industry has a high staff turnover rate, user-interaction is an important factor that needs to be taken into consideration when developing software for retail, says Bell.
“You can’t design a retail front-end for power users,” he says. “There will be [users] who have had none or very limited exposure to computers, and users that are nervous about pressing the wrong button.”
This means the interface has to be user-friendly and easy to learn. AdvanceRetail’s aim is that new users will be comfortable using the product within 20 minutes.
Another retail industry requirement is that the tills keep ringing at all times, he says.
“We had to build redundancy into every point of sale to make that happen,” says Bell. “So that if everything around [the till] fell apart and blew up, but you still have power to the computer, you still have a till that works. You can sell stuff and record information, and when [the system] eventually comes back online it can pass all that data back through to head office.”
To make the product easier to use — and to take up as little space as possible — Bell and his team have disabled the mouse. Instead, the keyboard is the main tool.
“And, really, the only thing [users] need to learn is the enter key, to get them through a sale — and the escape key, to jump them back if they make a mistake. It also allows more interaction between the user and the customer.”
AdvanceRetail is working with emerging technologies, such as wireless devices, that allow retail staff to interact with customers and access information on the floor, as well as with customer-facing displays at the point of sale.
“This is, basically, a second screen on the POS computer, used to display in-store advertising. It can play adverts … or give ‘buyer assurance-type messages’ [to alleviate] buyer remorse,” he says.
When a sale goes through, a skirt for example, the displays could also show other products or garments that go with that skirt, he says.
“In a way, it’s a technology-rich way of asking, ‘Do you want fries with that?’”
AdvanceRetail is currently using web services for some features, such as charge-card validation, and there are projects on the way to give users visibility into the supply chain from the POS, says Bell.
Retail staff will have access to other hosted systems that can be pulled through into the system, for example, to check the status of a product to see if it has left the manufacturer.
One of the main challenges for Bell and his team is to take all the requirements from thousands of retailers and merge those into one product.
“The challenge has been, and continues to be, trying to understand what the requirements are, and how can we implement those changes as generically as possible.”
Ideally, changes to the system should not confuse or disturb users, but at the same time they should provide them with the choice to use the new functions, says Bell.
How Bell scored a hole-in-one
AdvanceRetail CTO Andrew Bell has been with the company for ten years. Originally a Kiwi, he won a couple of competitions in the UK in his early career, including the Young Scientist of Britain, the Young Engineer of Britain and the Young Ambassador of British Engineering.
He won all these titles as a result of a project he started in sixth form at school — a golf shot analyser.
“It was not going to save the world from starvation and poverty, but it was probably going to make a heap of money from people that like golf,” he says.
Winning the competitions is what really got him into technology, says Bell. It also gave him a good understanding for product design, he says — and the chance to work for NASA for three months.
“It was like beaming into Star Trek,” he says.
“People [at NASA] were talking about space stations and missions to Mars with straight faces because it was their reality. It was fantastic.”
At NASA, Bell worked on a photo-luminescence project, which was about developing efficient solar-cell arrays for a space station, he says.
Bell also undertook an electronic engineering degree at the University of Kent. He then worked for a few different companies, doing Windows software product development, before coming back to New Zealand and to work for AdvanceRetail, where he started building the Windows development that later became AdvanceRetail’s retail management software.
“My initial thought was: how hard can it be? You buy things, you sell things … However, ten years later, I have to say not a week goes by without my learning something new about retail processes,” he says.
Bell made the decision that AdvanceRetail would “for better or worse, marry itself to the Microsoft technology stack”, he says.