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Posted Date: 4/25/2013

The Rise of the Smart Printer

By Julie Ritzer Ross
While a staple component of most, if not all, retail and hospitality POS and warehouse applications, printers traditionally haven’t afforded VARs a significant opportunity in the way of add-on revenues (beyond consumables). That is all about to change, as end-users demand more feature-rich equipment with a wider breadth of capabilities, and as printer vendors partner with ISVs and solution providers on a multitude of solutions.

At this year’s National Retail Federation Big Show, in New York City, printers literally ruled the show. Almost every printer manufacturer showed off some form of smart printer device teeming with advanced tools to enhance a solution package.

“Today’s model looks entirely different from yesterday’s model,” asserts Matthew Inan, director of business development for solutions provider e-Nabler Corp. (www.emobilepos.com). Wherever and however retailers are going to use printers, they want a much richer feature set, which necessitates collaborative development efforts by constituents from different camps within the channel.

MOBILITY A MUST
Not surprisingly, retailers’ ever-increasing affinity for equipping employees with tablets and smartphones (to improve customer service, take customer engagement to new levels and improve shopper throughput) has propelled mobility to the top spot on retailers’ list of highly desirable, if not essential, printer features. “The ability to print from virtually any location in a store has become paramount,” observes Dave Crist, vice president, Brother Mobile Solutions (www.brothermobilesolutions.com). “And the call now is for printing solutions that not only facilitate mobile printing, but are configured so that they interface with tablets, smartphones, handheld and rugged devices in pretty much any combination.”

Also appearing on many retailers’ must list are features that permit printers to go beyond functioning as intended, playing other roles within the retail enterprise, states Gregg Brunnick, director of marketing, business systems division at Epson America (www.pos.epson.com).

Such features encompass computing power and memory to support flexible in-store POS configurations that support not just web-based printing, but also mobile POS transaction processing and the connectivity needed to drive different peripheral devices without a PC or POS terminal. These technologies include in-store kiosk displays, web POS, thin client and hybrid POS systems comprised of fixed and mobile POS solutions. Also in high demand by end users are accoutrements that pave the way for printers to act as gateways to cloud applications, in turn permitting retailers to parse and analyze transactional data in the course of creating personalized offers, coupons, loyalty program data and other revenue-driving content.

Clearly, VARs will see business gains if they expand their solutions toolkits to include advanced printers that fit this feature bill, but there is more to the case for moving into the mobile printer category. Notably, states Crist, although retailers want to deploy more in-store applications to sharpen their competitive edge, satisfy the needs of ever-more-demanding consumers and enhance their operational efficiencies, they prefer to work with as few channel players as possible to deploy and maintain the technology they implement, no matter how diverse.

“If you can handle all of their requirements with a converged solution” that has a printer component, “you become a solution provider of choice,” he explains.
Just as significantly, selling advanced printers carries with it the potential for VARs to hook end-users with additional products and services, some of which lead to recurring revenues, points out Jon Levin, product integration manager,
Star Micronics (www.starmicronics.com). He cites wireless infrastructure installation and maintenance as a key example.

ALLIANCES PUSH ENVELOPE
ISVs and solution providers see the benefit of embracing printers with an enhanced feature set. Propelled forward by alliances with—and initiatives undertaken by—printer vendors, they are developing or have developed a range of innovative applications with advanced printers at their centerpiece. For instance, as of early March, six cloud-based retail application providers teamed up with Epson to provide a variety of features and functionality to POS systems using its recently introduced OmniLink smart solutions. OmniLink-enabled units combine POS printing capabilities with built-in intelligence, enabling them to deliver cloud-based services, peripheral connectivity and PC computing power, as well as for mobile web-based printing. Gateway connectivity is via Wi-Fi or Ethernet.

One of the vendor’s ISV partners, Livelenz (www.livelenz.com) integrated its Livelenz data analytics solution with OmniLink-enabled Epson T-88Vi printers. The application resides in the cloud, pulling detailed transaction data from the printers, which function as a gateway to trending and gap analyses, performance results, and predictive models generated by the software. Because the Livelenz platform is integrated with the printer rather than with the POS system, merchants don’t need to replace or upgrade their POS configurations—even electronic cash registers— to harness data analytics, explains Livelenz CEO Joel Doherty. Coupled with the rapid deployment advantages afforded by keeping the software apart from the POS system and instead interfaced with (and essentially running off) an intelligent printer, this should facilitate end-user acceptance and, appropriately, build sales momentum.

The application has been up and running at several Moe’s Southwest Grill locations for more than a year, with recent additional deployments at Subway and Arby’s franchisee stores and several retail SMB deployments planned. Doherty says Moe’s has seen operational improvements, increased upsell opportunities and labor/cost reductions as a result of the melding of the two platforms.

Meanwhile, Epson partners AppCard (www.appcard.com) and RewardLoop (www.rewardloop.com) are focusing on the integration of their customer loyalty program platforms with OmniLink-enabled printer hardware. As is the case with Livelenz, the printer component functions as a gateway for actionable customer information. Yair Goldfinger, AppCard’s co-founder and CEO, claims the absence of a need to integrate the POS system with the loyalty program, as well as the increased degree of customer engagement afforded by the program, as key benefits that are proving to be viable selling points for the AppCard/OmniLink combination. One independent boutique bought into the application with the goal of making it easier to quickly deploy a customer loyalty solution without integrating that solution with its POS system.

Brunnick says the remaining three network affiliates—Proximiant (www.proxi
miant.com
), Third Solutions (www.thirdsolutions.com) and SmartReceipt (www.receipt.com) —have cooperated with Epson to develop digital receipt applications that tie in with OmniLink. However, he notes, the door remains open for other solutions that would harness intelligent printer capabilities. For example, rather than using an intelligent printer as a data gateway, VARs might employ it in a thin-client POS application, loading POS software directly onto the unit and connecting it with peripherals, such as PIN pads, mag stripe readers and cash drawers. The key selling point here: the cost of utilizing an intelligent printer to power other peripherals is, according to Brunnick, lower than that of replacing a traditional POS system. Channel players can also configure customer-facing kiosk applications in which an intelligent printer acts as a conduit to the Internet—for example, to allow grocery-store shoppers to access (and subsequently print out) online recipes and menu suggestions, the executive adds.

Meanwhile, e-Nabler Corp. has allied itself with Star Micronics, certifying its eMobilePOS 4.0 mobile POS solution for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch devices for bundling with Star Micronics’ TSP654L and TSP143L printers. Leveraging development toolkits, VARs can configure the software so that store employees can ring up orders on any of these devices and print a receipt on either of the two printer models.

“Even among small retailers, there is a lot of interest in this type of application,” Inan says. One retailer in South Florida uses a combination of eMobilePOS and Star Micronics printers to initiate mobile receipt printing from iPad devices. The iPads are used by employees to provide customers with product and inventory information, as well as to handle payments.

“Besides decreasing the chance that customers will leave the store without buying what they came in for because of long lines at the POS, the beauty of this application, for the retailer, is that on slower days, it is possible to run the store with fewer employees, without a negative impact on the business,” Inan explains. “They don’t need multiple people to run the POS counter and help customers on the sales floor. Instead, one person can do all of it.”

In a somewhat different vein, Zebra Technologies (www.zebra.com) solutions partners are working on the design of applications that harness NFC in one fashion or another, reports Marty Johnson, product marketing manager. The company has NFC-enabled its retail printers. “With the right application, retailers could use an NFC tag to tell the printer to generate pre-loaded labels,” Johnson explains. “Or the NFC antenna can be programmed to fetch a support web page on a user’s smartphone. NFC can also be used to authenticate a user based on their phone before printing.”

The printer has had a long career as the rock of most business products—everyone needs one, but most resellers and end users never considered the printer a tool for anything beyond spreading (or burning) ink on paper. Wow, how things have changed—today’s printers are teeming with software tools and intelligence beyond anything imagined. Now it’s up to savvy solution providers to help their clients take full advantage of these new technologies and transition the printer from an unremarkable necessity to the backbone and brain of a solution. Luckily, it’s a good time to be a printer reseller.

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