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  1. #1
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    Modern business apps for an old-fashioned small business

    I'm helping a friend who owns a small bakery business. He has the bakery itself, where he makes the bread, pies, and cakes; and a small retail outlet located in a small-town farmers market. Most of his sales are to casual customers who buy at the retail outlet, but he also gets orders, especially during the holiday season. For 16 years, he and his employees have kept track of customer orders with pen and notepaper. The business has grown, especially since he started taking credit cards. He wants a more robust way to manage special orders—it can be tough keep track of notes dashed off on little sticky notes.

    My friend knows that I enjoy tinkering with computer applications. I'm especially fond of Microsoft Office applications, notably Word, Excel, and Access. I've offered to develop something that will meet his needs. I started with MS-Access, but I'm thinking about how best to proceed. The answer could be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet. That would be a big improvement, but I'd like to go just a bit further.

    The owner has a Windows 8 laptop that he keeps at the bakery. It never leaves his desk. At the retail location, the only electronic device is an iPod 3 (not an iPad or an iPhone) fitted with one of those Square credit card readers. That's it. With something as simple as a ChromeBook at the retail counter, the sales clerk could key in order details in an MS-Access order form. Right there is where I get hung up. I'd like to link the two machines with some sort of cloud application, but I don't know what to recommend.

    I've looked at two competing systems: Microsoft Office 365 for Business and Google Apps for Business. The entry-level versions go for about the same money, and the price seems reasonable (to me, at least). The owner's laptop already has Office 2013, but it's the Business edition, which lacks Access. (IMHO, the Business edition should include Access, but Redmond didn't ask for my opinion.) Anyway, I've come to the Lounge to ask for advice. I hope someone here has worked with clients in similar situations, where the owner clearly needs a modern way to manage his business, but doesn't need or want to shell out serious cash to get it. What are your thoughts?

  2. #2
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    I can't see Office or Google doing what you want because you need a client / server DB to do what you envisage. You could just install a ready to roll POS system on a hosted server. Then you can access it with just an internet connection.

    cheers, Paul

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    Hm-m-m ... you've given me something to think about, Paul. Thanks for the tip!

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    Which Office 365 subscription did you look at? You could do something as simple as a spreadsheet in SharePoint online accessed via Excel online at the retail side. Which could be accessed with Office 2013 at the bakery side. IIRC, all the Office apps support concurrent access and update now. No need for any client/server application hosted anywhere unless you really need a POS system. You can also look in the Office store to see if there are any apps that might work.

    Joe

  5. #5
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    I've looked at Office 365 Business and Business Essentials. Anything more robust would be gross overkill for a business this size. We have not discussed a POS system, but I don't think the owner sees the need. He simply wants a system for collecting order details and storing the data for retrieval later. (Customer: "Do you remember what I ordered last Christmas?" He has no way to answer such a question without digging through whatever notes he may have kept from the previous season.) The current Office 2013 Business Edition on the bakery laptop lacks Microsoft Access. I'm building a database of bakery products that will include a form for taking and storing customer information and orders. I know I can build in tools that will export data to Excel.

    He plans to purchase an inexpensive tablet for the retail store. Unless I find a better solution, I'll recommend that he subscribe to Office 365. I've used Office 365 Personal at home for going on two years, and I like it a lot. The problem I see with Business Essentials is that it will not install the "real" Office applications on his machines. I can't say for sure, but I suspect Essentials won't include Access, and that would limit me to Excel. I have nothing against Excel, but I like the relational database approach that Access affords.

    I experimented with Google Forms and Google Sheets. I built a test form that collects order details and sends the "response" to a spreadsheet. That scheme works, but I can see that over time it will become clumsy to retrieve data as the spreadsheet grows. I'm open to any ideas.

  6. #6
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    I thought about suggesting QuickBooks but then I might look at Quicken Home and Business. The use of a tablet may be an issue as most seem to be the Android OS which may not have a compatible app but there are some with Windows 8.1 [I have a Dell Venue 8 8"].

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    You have to have one of the "enterprise" Office 365 plans to get Access included. The Office 365 Business Essentials plan does not include any of the Office desktop programs. See Office 365 plans for feature comparison and prices.

    Joe

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    Good point about the Android OS. I looked very briefly at QuickBooks, but I got the impression that it's a bit more tool than he needs. Now, I hadn't looked at the Home and Business line. Thanks!
    Last edited by Caesar3; 2015-03-06 at 12:54.

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    Any time you want details from customer A from 2 months ago you need a database that contains all data. Accessing it from more than one location seems to be the issue. Maybe you could use a database at the bakery and a spreadsheet at the store, then email the spreadsheet and import it into the database.

    cheers, Paul

  10. #10
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    That's one approach that I've considered. Thanks!

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    I suggest a different, and more simple direction.

    You stated that the business uses Square. Why not implement Square Register (POS), Inventory, and Analytics? Based on my cursory exploration of the SquareUp.com website, the software side of these features is included in any standard account.

    For hardware, I would strongly recommend an iPad - but I'm speaking as a consumer who has conducted business with Square customers. It's so much easier to see transaction information on the tablet, than on an iPod or iPhone.

    As a technical person, my first instinct would be to build a solution using Office, similar to what you suggested in your original post. But as a business owner, maintaining a custom solution can become a burden. With Square, you offload that burden onto them - but you do pay for it through transaction fees.

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    I think you should start with Excel. Get everything as refined and simplified in Excel as you can, and work it that way for a while. You may find that Excel will give you everything you need. Best of all, it is simple and straightforward.

    The folder where the spreadsheets are kept can be on OneDrive (or whatever Microsoft's cloud drive is called) and therefore synchronized among the various workstations.

    The only negative I can see here is keeping the business' books in the cloud -- perhaps there would be some privacy concerns.

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    This comes with a monthly cost but you could look at LAMP server hosting. There are some pretty cheap places to host out there - as cheap as free but you get what you pay for. (or roll-your-own VPN to use Access as your own local backend database but that might be too complicated for non-techies to live with)

    You would have to build your own web page with simple javascript or VB script and SQL commands to a backend database but that would not be much more complicated than writing Excel or Access forms.

    I wrote a trouble ticket web page without too much effort a few years ago and the most difficult part was figuring out how to add and subtract hours between dates without counting weekends, holidays, and after hours. The rest was fairly easy to learn from scratch off of google searches.

    You would need to know HTML, Dynamic Web Pages, and SQL to use either a LAMP server or a locally hosted web page/Access database backend. For the locally hosted web page you would also need to know how to set up a VPN (or at least port forwarding on the home-base router) and an application that would allow you to host a dynamic web page attached to Access.(several freely available)

    It might be some extra work but you would have a system that could run off of any browser capable device. You would not need Excel or Access installed on every device you want to work on.

    But keep security and privacy in mind for any type of cloud or internet attached solution.

  14. #14
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    Chris, this is one of the most interesting replies I've gotten. I know almost nothing about Square beyond the fact that my friend can now accept credit cards. (Getting the Square greatly enhanced his business, by the way.) I will surely explore the Square app for ways to do what he wants.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mrjimphelps View Post
    I think you should start with Excel.
    In fact, Mr. Jim, this is one approach I've considered—very simple and straightforward. I like the Access idea, but the people who will use whatever I put together are emphatically not prepared to fix the inevitable problems. In his post this morning, Chris the Computin' Guru pointed out that "maintaining a custom solution can become a burden." I'll be the only person they can turn to who will have a clue which wire to jiggle. If I'm not readily available, they're outta luck. Thanks for the tip!

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