Meeting the challenge with Argos
How OCS Consulting delivered a pilot project for new cash payment kiosks
Paying cash is a popular choice for some Argos customers. Thanks to a ground-breaking development project by OCS Consulting, Argos is now trialling a new cash payment kiosk in two stores to complement existing card kiosks. Delivered by OCS in just six months, the trial is finding out how customers like the system while assessing the impact on the Argos IT infrastructure.
Established in 1984, OCS Consulting understands the importance of creating flexible and innovative solutions for its clients. The company is viewed as a trusted IT service partner, helping to extend the IT teams of many blue-chip organisations. A positive working attitude has resulted in a high level of repeat business and many long-term client relationships.
A good example of the latter is Argos. According to OCS Group Chief Executive Maurice Aroesti, OCS provides a managed service solution for several Argos applications. Argos is a catalogue retailer with 680 stores and annual sales of £3.8 billion.
"Our relationship with Argos goes back to 1997 when OCS provided some specialist consultants. Then they asked us to take on managed services solutions for a number of their products," said Aroesti.
Carried out by a dedicated support and maintenance team, this work has also included enhancements on several systems such as training management, self-service card kiosks, and data capture. Two new systems - ticket print and stores intranet - were developed by OCS.
Accepting cash payments
The prototype cash payment kiosk is part of the Argos 'fast, friendly and efficient' programme to maximise in-store technology. Designed to complement existing debit/credit card payment kiosks, it recognises that some customers prefer cash.
"Argos wanted to trial new cash-taking machines but they had to have the same user experience - the visual interface - as the card kiosks," said Aroesti.
This posed an interesting challenge for OCS as, apart from the cash handling complexities, the new kiosks had to integrate with existing store systems and back-end data processing infrastructure. IBM - the manufacturers of the card kiosks - was chosen to supply the cash kiosk hardware. The initial plan was to see if the existing card kiosk software might be adapted.
OCS consultants carefully assessed the business objectives and considered the technical aspects. Leaving aside the latter, the biggest constraints were budget and timescales - testing the company's retail experience and knowledge of Argos to the full.
"When Argos engaged us in May 2006, they wanted the project delivered in November. That created a tremendous challenge for us," said Aroesti.
A complex project
Coordinating everyone involved proved a complex task. This included liaison with IBM and various Argos departments as well as Torex for hardware installation and maintenance. Effective communication between all parties became essential to deliver the project on time and to budget.
After deciding on an effective end-to-end design, everything had to be developed at OCS offices in Borehamwood. It was then to be shown as a proof of concept before being deployed to an Argos store for further testing. The project delivery was based on an iterative approach broken down into several development and testing stages. This helped mitigate key technical and business risks in advance as OCS consultants worked closely with the Argos Information Services Department.
"OCS programme managed the complete project bringing in the thought leadership and third party relationship management to deliver the solution on time and within budget," said Aroesti.
Achieving this result started with OCS confirming the scope and making valuable contributions to the business case. A project plan was then developed, identifying the milestones and success criteria. OCS consultants undertook a wide range of tasks from business and systems analysis, to development, staff training and testing. They even provided on-site support for user acceptance testing and the pilot roll-out.
OCS took the existing tiered card kiosk software (written in Java) and redeveloped it for the cash payment kiosk. A more economical solution than writing from scratch, the additions covered cash processing, reporting, balance information, error handling and security. OCS also developed a new adapter package to allow the cash kiosk solution to integrate seamlessly with Wincor Nixdorf's iScan application.
Deploying the solution
As the project gathered pace, the trial was moved from OCS to an Argos office in Milton Keynes for integration and acceptance testing. Once Argos was assured of its functionality, the new kiosk hardware was initially taken to the Nottingham store for testing. OCS was involved on-site to ensure a smooth transition to a fully-working environment. Four pilot kiosks were finally deployed to Walsall and Leicester.
Customers have taken to the new cash kiosk well, giving more of them the flexibility to choose how they engage with Argos. Since OCS kept the user interface design and navigation very similar to the existing card kiosks, customers found the process very intuitive and required little or no help. Early feedback from store managers is promising with the system providing accurate cash management and reducing queue times at the manned tills.
OCS continues to support the pilot project, alongside its service of the other managed applications. Software enhancements are now being made with wider deployment in mind. In a related development, OCS also implemented a wireless mobile kiosk for staff to take card payments anywhere in store - further reducing queues at peak periods. The robust OCS approach and deep understanding of retail technology has proved a winning combination.
"Although OCS Consulting is a small company, we're there to help identify, own and resolve problems for our customers - coming up with results like this," said Aroesti. "Argos likes us because we work with them in a true partnership, helping identify new trends in retail technology, and then delivering truly innovative solutions."