By Virginia Bridges The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
On the hunt for a point-of-sale system, the partners behind Crank Arm Brewing were looking for a specific but affordable solution.
They wanted to process credit card payments on their own terminal, and they needed a system in which bartenders could easily establish, track and process tabs.
Registration was free for the cheapest service but required monthly payments that included higher credit card processing fees.
The most expensive option was about $20,000 per terminal.
"As a startup, you could see how it was a little crazy to think about that," said Adam Eckhardt, one of Crank Arm's four owners.
Instead, they bought two used iPads and subscribed to point-of-sale application TouchBistro, which they have been using since Crank Arm opened in Raleigh, N.C., in July 2013.
"It runs pretty well," Eckhardt said.
The owners are not alone in their decision. A recent survey indicates that small firms are increasing smartphone, tablet and app use.
About 94 percent of businesses use a smartphone to conduct business, up 9 percent compared with last year, while 51.5 percent use apps and 61.7 percent use tablets, according to a recent small-business survey conducted by AT&T and the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.
When small-business owners are able to improve systems and save time that they or their employees would have previously spent on tasks such as document management, then they can invest in other areas of their business, said Cathy Martine, AT&T president of enterprise business solutions.
Mobile devices have enabled everyone from doctors to attorneys to improve their internal office procedures, as well as access to information.
Other businesses, such as landscapers, are using devices and applications to improve routes and track their fleet, Martine said.
"Saving time and money is the No. 1 objective here in terms of what motivates them," she said. "Areas that we continue to see the same repetitive themes coming back is document access, financial management, and then planning and operations of their business."
The survey found that smartphones save businesses 1.24 billion hours and $32.3 billion annually, while tablets save 754.2 million hours and $19.6 billion a year.
Many entrepreneurs are using devices and applications to organize, find places, store information and receipts, and monitor their time and revenue. Others use devices to watch their shop when they aren't there, regulate temperatures in conference rooms and set mood lighting in spas.
A lot of service industry businesses are turning to tablet-based point-of-sale systems, said Brian Hernandez, marketing manager for Apex, N.C.-based Convergence Technologies, which installs automation technology at residential and commercial properties.
A few restaurants and bars are using tablets as menus and at-the-table checkout systems.
Jimmy V's Osteria and Bar in Raleigh uses eight iPads to supplement its beer, wine and cocktail experience.
Customers use the tablets to explore the adult beverage offerings, allowing customers to see related wine tasting notes, learn about vineyards and bookmark bottles or drinks they are interested in. Customers can even email themselves the name of the wine or a specialty drink recipe.
"It is a really cool add-on that the app gives you," said Jack Benton, the restaurant's bar manager. "It is just the next step to service."
Since opening in July last year, two iPads have been replaced because of screen damage.
This summer, Jimmy V's plans to roll out an application in which customers can access the bar app from their own devices, along with performing other actions, such as checking in on social media or writing a review, said Karen Diaz, the restaurant's marketing director.
Beyond the service industry, Hernandez said, companies are using devices to make presentations and control technology that can adjust the conference room temperature before it is used.
They also use the devices like a key to get into their offices or to view the cameras installed for 24-hour surveillance.
Raleigh hair stylist Andrea Connelly said her iPad Mini has been an important tool in her transition to small-business owner five years ago. Connelly went from working on a commission basis for a salon to being an independent contractor.
"I cannot imagine not having it now," said Connelly, 40. "Just the paperwork that it has released me of is amazing."
Connelly uses her iPad for online banking and to process credit card payments. Her clients use it to peruse apps with salon magazines, and Connelly takes and stores photos of her clients to remember their haircuts.
She also uses it to store documents, information on new products or notes from a class she recently took.
"It is like having a portable laptop with the Internet connected at all times," she said.
Crank Arm Brewing paid about $5,000 for the initial iPad point-of-sale system setup, which required an Apple Mac mini, two iPads, cash drawers and printers. The owners pay about $300 a year per terminal to use the app.
For the most part, the system delivers what it promises, said Eckhardt and fellow co-owner Mike Morris, both 37 and of Raleigh. They use the iPad app to ring up sales, manage tabs, and monitor inventory and sales. They also use it to keep track of beer recipes and scheduled events.
Sometimes the app does get bogged down when it's really busy, the owners said, and sometimes it crashes.
It's not that bad, Morris said, as it only takes a couple of minutes to get it back up and running.
As the business approaches its first anniversary, its owners plan to explore other options. They want an application that generates a tab name at the swipe of a credit card instead of requiring the user to type it in. But they aren't interested in making too big an investment for a larger system.
If it doesn't increase their capacity or improve their beer, Eckhardt said, "It's just not worth it for us." ___ DEVICE AND APPLICATION USE BY THE NUMBERS:
-About 31 percent of small businesses report they save at least five hours per week because they use laptops or notebooks.
-About three-fourths of small businesses report their use of mobile devices has increased as it allows them to operate remotely.
-Nearly one-third of small businesses have seen their use of mobile data double in the past two years because of activities such as downloading and uploading files on their mobile devices.
-The use of mobile apps by small businesses has increased by 65 percent over the past two years.
SOURCE: Survey by AT&T and Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council