Speedy sales

Luke Dormehl spoke with some HE catering departments to find out about the revolution happening in point-of-sale technology

For those unfamiliar with the term, EPoS systems refer to electronic point of sale: the technology used for recording the sale of good or services to a customer. It’s a key part of running an effective university catering department, and one that is rapidly changing too. 

“University caterers have to deal with a huge amount of complexity,” says Tim Burrows, operations manager at the University of Kent. “One of the major complications that we have compared to a restaurant is the issue of dealing with VAT. When you go to a high-street restaurant, VAT will be added to everything on the menu. At a university, students are entitled to have their main meals VAT-exempt. Our till system, therefore, has to be able to work that out. For every transaction we have to establish which category a person fits into – whether they are a student, a member of staff, or a conference guest – and then charge different prices for the same product at the click of a finger.”

Burrows also notes the amount of variation that goes on in terms of the different options modern HE caterers like to offer. “We like to be able to diversify the offers that we make,” he continues. “Not only do we do our set menu and our specials in the campus restaurant, but we allow the students to buy various packages of meals as well. One of these is called the Real Meal Deal, which lets students buy a term’s worth of meals at a discounted price. We also offer combination deals on sandwiches, drinks and a packet of crisps. In addition to that, a lot of our accommodation is bed-and-breakfast, so students are entitled to breakfast as part of their room rate. If they don’t eat breakfast on a certain day that sum is then carried on to the evening meal, which they can then receive a discount on. Our EPoS systems need to be able to keep track of all of this. It would be immensely difficult to do manually. It’s tough to overstate their importance in that way.”

Working together

One of the points reiterated over and over while researching this article was the importance of EPoS systems being straightforward and easy to use. This is one of the most positive aspects of modern EPoS technology: while the technology involved has become more complex in terms of its functionality, the actual interface has become simpler than ever.

“Most caterers that I have worked with are not necessarily technically savvy in terms of computers,” says Burrows. “What this means is that systems need to work in a way that feels intuitive. The EPoS system that we work with at the University of Kent, for instance, utilises a drop-and-drop interface that is very appealing. That stands in contrast to previous systems that we’ve used, which generally involved manually entering numbers and then having to test the till system through trial and error.” 

Another positive development in recent years is the integration of various types of EPoS systems, which now work more cohesively together.

“When we first got our system we had to cobble it together using various suppliers,” Burrows continues. “At that time the EPoS system itself was provided by Symphony, a suite of software designed and developed by MCR Systems. In order to work with the cashless card system that we wanted, however, they had to talk to VMC, which is a company that creates cashless payment solutions for catering and vending. We then ran the combined system on IBM tills, to make our package of requirements work. In the five years since then, though, Symphony is now able to offer all the functionality that we need. We haven’t upgraded yet, but when we do we will likely be able to do everything we need through one manufacturer.”

The future of epos

Something that HE institutions and technology have in common is that both are, of course, changing on a continuous basis. What is possible using today’s EPoS systems would have posed a challenge even 10 years ago, while universities are undergoing a fundamental shift in their requirements of on-campus facilities.

Recent years have seen a number of exciting innovations that promise to transform the EPoS industry, however. Deeper data analytics now allow caterers to keep far more granular records of stock, takings and overall trends – thereby better predicting customer habits in a way that can help streamline business. 

“We use our EPoS system to check how many of certain items are being consumed,” says Karen Barratt, student services manager at Keele University. “When it comes to breakfast we can use the quantities of bacon, sausage and other foodstuffs to make sure the chefs produce the right amount – with minimal wastage.”

An increasing number of hospitality establishments are also replacing traditional cash registers with iPads and other tablet computers – with the rationale that this can both speed up and add flexibility to the type of transactions which take place. Tablets are an illustration of the move toward more mobile EPoS systems. Where tills and tethered-terminals are difficult to move around, tablets are lightweight and allow more flexibility in their location and operation. Since text messaging and smartphones are second nature to today’s students, many universities may similarly wish to consider embracing the idea of mobile technology by incorporating concepts like text-based sales vouchers, which can then be redeemed at the point of sale.

“A good EPoS system needs to be completely seamless from the perspective of the customer,” says Tim Burrows. “In most cases today I doubt that customers come away thinking ‘wow, that EPoS system is good – it can do such-and-such.’ From my perspective, however, it’s important that they never leave thinking we can’t do something.”

This is certainly key to the catering experience. But as modern EPoS systems allow increasing amounts of personalisation for students (thereby promoting customer loyalty in the process) it is entirely likely that the technology – despite getting smaller, simpler and more mobile – will become a more important part of the overall university experience. And not a moment too soon, either.

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