For eight years, Montreal art boutique Indianica coped with a computerized checkout system that never quite fit. Adapted for the store from software designed for restaurants, the digital cash register cost $15,000 but was slow, had poor inventory capabilities and was long to learn.

SPECIAL REPORT: Small Business

Coverage of the latest small business news, trends and issues, as well as advice from experts on everything from starting and marketing a business, to managing staff and improving the bottom line.

It's a common problem for small businesses looking for reasonably priced programs to run their operations — software designed as one-size-fits-all can do the basics, but the fit is often awkward and inefficient.

Then last year, owner Alex Kiorpelidis saw an advertisement for a newer cloud-based point-of-sale setup from two of Canada’s big banks.

"It was affordable, and it was pretty much exactly what we needed," Kiorpelidis said.

mi-indianica-google

Indianica is in the heart of Old Montreal, where it often attracts tourists who are in a rush to catch a bus and can't wait for lengthy transactions. (Google Street View)

It's an example of a new breed of commercial systems for small enterprises that are designed to be flexible and fit the way small businesses operate, rather than forcing them to adapt their businesses to the technology. So Indianica, which sells a range of First Nations and Inuit art and crafts, made the switch, and has been relishing it ever since.

The shop, located among the narrow, brick-laid streets of Old Montreal, sells items ranging from buckskin gloves, dream catchers and hand-crafted knives to soapstone figurine sculptures and Innu tea dolls. The aboriginal artworks it deals in come from across the country, from the Mi’kmaq in the Maritimes to the Inuit in the North to Squamish nations on the West Coast.

Consequently, Indianica has particular needs for its checkout and inventory tracking. Handcrafted artworks come from many different suppliers, prices can range from 75 cents to $30,000, and many items are unique, meaning more comprehensive data entry is often required when something new arrives in stock.

But the shop’s new system, from credit-card and Interac transaction processor Moneris (itself a joint venture between Royal Bank and Bank of Montreal), can do it all, Kiorpelidis said. The system runs on a Hewlett-Packard hardware package designed specifically for retail stores, including a PC, barcode scanner, cash-drawer and receipt printer.

"For inventory, we just punch in codes, scan it and type in the name of the product, and from then on that barcode is for that item, at that set price. Changing the price is really easy, it takes maybe three steps," he explained. "We have a lot of original pieces, like artwork where there’s only one of them, and it’s easy to work out."

mi-corrine-hunt-cp

The Indianica store in Montreal carries works from Corrine Hunt, the B.C. artist who co-designed the 2010 Olympic medals. Jonathan Hayward/CP (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

Kiorpelidis said one of the biggest advantages has been transaction speed. Even though the old checkout system had a high-speed internet connection, the store’s average time to swipe and approve a customer’s credit card has dropped from half a minute to 10 seconds, meaning less time in line for patrons and potentially more successful transaction.

"We used to lose customers sometimes. People were fed up waiting, especially if they’re tourists with tour buses waiting for them. A lot of times they’d put their stuff down and leave. You gotta think in three months, if that happens a dozen times, you’re losing a couple thousand dollars in sales, which would pay for the machine."

Another major benefit has been the ease of use of the Moneris system, called Morris (short for Moneris Online Retail Register and Inventory System). Kiorpelidis’s tourist-heavy business gets most of its customers in the summer, so he hires summer students to staff the store. It used to take three or four days for them to master the old digital cash register, but they can learn the gist of the new one, which combines checkout and payment processing, in two to three hours, he said.

And on the back end, Morris’s inventory tracking updates automatically with every sale, saving hours of manual tallying.

In the cloud

Several of Morris’s key features are possible because it’s an online, cloud-based technology. That means the actual payment processing and data reside on remote servers, while the in-store computer can be any machine capable of running Internet Explorer 7 or higher.

What's 'cloud computing'?

While there are varying definitions of cloud computing or software-as-a-service (SaaS), it's basically about taking applications and data that were previously on your desktop computer or office server and accessing them remotely through shared computing resources "in the cloud."

This is a fancy way of saying that the software — everything from simple word processors to complex customer-relationship-management systems and any associated data — is hosted on servers on the internet, and often accessed through a common web browser. (The name stems from diagrams of networks, which often represent the internet as a cloud.)

The applications and data storage services are usually purchased from a third party hosting company. For a small business that doesn't have a lot of money to spend on new technology, or people to manage it, cloud computing offers new and more flexible — and often much cheaper — ways of using technology. Businesses can get easy, affordable access to a range of tools, from office suites to online meeting services to accounting programs.  If they need to, they can access programs and data from anywhere using the internet.

The hosting company takes care of all the program updates, system maintenance and security headaches. And rather than having to make a huge investment in technology up-front, the customer can usually pay for cloud computing services on a yearly, monthly or even per-use basis, depending on the service provider they choose.

As a result, business owners can log on over the internet from anywhere and access inventory and sales data. The cloud model also ensures small businesses can easily comply with strict and complex credit-card security rules, since they themselves don’t capture Visa or MasterCard numbers on their terminals but merely transmit them securely to Moneris’s servers.

Cloud computing also translates into more flexible, responsive software that can be updated to meet merchants’ needs via changes made on the central servers — and without any fuss on the store’s end.

"Whenever we include a new feature or enhancement to the platform, you pretty much get it out of the gate. You don’t have to go and reinstall anything," said John Florinis, director of product marketing at Moneris. "As we listen to our customers, as we feel new features and functionality need to be added, we can go out and do that."

Florinis said Morris, launched in 2009, was designed specifically for small businesses because none of large enterprise technology available at the time aligned with their needs. Mom-and-pop stores would typically have to have a cash register separate from their credit- and debit-card terminal, for example, rather than an integrated system. "Double entry was a big issue, and if you had an $81 transaction and a big lineup, you might punch in $18 by accident," he said.

Systems like Morris were made possible by the widescale adoption of broadband internet,  he said, without which communicating with programs and data in the cloud is slow and cumbersome.

Morris only has "several hundred" customers so far, Florinis said, but Moneris, one of the country’s largest credit-card payment processors, is hoping it can get most of its small-business clients to sign on. The system costs $50 a month for the basic version and $100 monthly for the full suite, which can have unlimited users and does purchase orders, promotions and invoicing.

It's just one of the growing number of customizable, cloud-based choices out there for small busineses. There are more and more alternatives, with suppliers ranging from big names like IBM and Intuit, to smaller providers such as Cybermatrix, Web Bytes and Lokad.

Indianica said it’s been happy with the basic service it purchased. It also bought its two Hewlett-Packard sales terminals, which can be operated by touch-screen or a mouse, through Moneris for $2,500 each, according to Kiorpelidis.

"I found it was well adapted to a small business," he said. "The ease of use is probably the best feature."

His main reservation is tied to simply keeping pace with change and getting used to new ways of doing things. "The touch-screen option makes processing time much faster," Kiorpelidis says. "With a lot of young employees, they’re used to a touch screen. Older people of my generation are still getting used to a mouse!"