Agile Retail Accounting in the Cloud

By Peter Witham,

Here’s what is trending right now: sandals, tablets, health-and-wellness products, cloud computing.

Yes, cloud is a hot topic as retailers try to make sense of this latest technology trend and how it can help them be more successful. This is an important effort, as the IT world as we know it will look very different in just a few short years. According to IDC, by 2016 cloud services will have become “an everyday sourcing option for the CIO and LOB manager alike, forcing change on both the infrastructure vendors, the owners of business IP and the consumers of cloud services and technologies.”

In the retail world, as in many others, there is a wide discrepancy in use of cloud technology as well as in levels of understanding. Here we will explore some practical considerations in evaluating cloud software. We will discuss some of the various deployment options and include examples of ways retailers today are using cloud computing, particularly in the back office.

What are the benefits of cloud computing?
While the benefits are many, probably the most significant one is scalability.  With cloud, your IT resources can be tailored to your most pressing business needs, and your software remains modern, with all the bells and whistles that new features and functionality can bring. As your needs grow, so, too, can your cloud deployment. With limited resources and dollars to spend on back office financial management solutions, retailers can immediately reap the benefits of scalability.

Speed is another key benefit.  Cloud solutions are easy and fast to set up; they also make it easier and faster for your employees to gain access to systems and the data resident there.

Data availability increases significantly. When your data is in the cloud, it is available to your employees wherever they are: in the office, with a client, at home or on the road.  If your financial accounting software is able to deliver information in real-time, there are virtually no barriers in accessing information.

Don’t forget cost. Retail runs on tight margins; therefore a cloud solution is appealing because it offers subscription-based pricing. That could be important for retailers who want to avoid major capital expenditures.

What you may not think about: security and backup are bonuses. Cloud security is generally superior to home-grown security that may be found in a company’s IT department. Additionally, cloud computing can serve as a redundant backup to your disaster recovery/backup processes, giving you additional peace of mind around the issues of reliability and availability.

How can cloud computing be deployed?
For many in retail, on-premise deployment remains an essential component of their IT strategy.  All the data that they need to run their business day-to-day is resident on-site and available when they need it there. Retailers with large data centers, resident IT staff, or regulatory requirements that dictate the storage of data often go this route.

For others, cloud has been a way to jump-start the modernization of their IT solutions, so that they have the tools and information available whenever they need it, wherever they are in the world.  Cloud computing needs an internet connection, which is an important consideration when evaluating cloud options.

Increasingly, organizations are moving critical financial and operational information to the cloud. The cloud is an attractive option for retailers who want to avoid or reduce in-house IT expertise and costs associated with maintaining IT infrastructure. It also appeals to those who want to speed their implementation and easily stay current with the latest versions of their software.

Perhaps you lie somewhere in the middle: You want some applications on-premise and others in the cloud and you want the control to determine which, where, when and how long your applications stay there. Unlike other software vendors, solutions such as those offered by UNIT4 Business Software put that power and flexibility in your hands.
How is cloud being used in retail today?
Retailers are using cloud computing in both the front end and back office. For example, one of our retail customers has deployed Coda Financials in the cloud to help set the foundation for growth and innovation across its many high-volume stores. Yet others see the cost savings and other benefits as primary measures for usage.

No matter how or when you decide to put cloud computing to the test, I offer you the following tips to make sure your efforts are fruitful:

  • Cloud computing still means different things to different vendors. Be sure you are equipped with the right questions to ask to determine a possible fit for you -- both on the partner and solution level.
  • Know your innovation and risk tolerance.  Before you even begin, understand what you want to keep on-premise and what you are willing to move to the cloud -- and which applications you might want to move back and forth as needed. Ensure that you have a timeline and milestones that fit within your schedule, not the vendors.
  • Ensure your cloud options have the built-in flexibility and agility necessary to not only integrate well with existing solutions but also allow you to make changes quickly and easily down the road. Some cloud providers only offer “light” versions of their solutions in the cloud.  Make sure you are getting the same, rich features and functionality that on-premise solutions provide. Additionally, just because an application is available in the cloud doesn’t mean it is the best quality or best suited to your needs. You still need the right solution with sufficient power, agility and sophistication to do the job.

Cloud computing can help you transform your retail business to be leaner, more cost effective and more focused on delivering what you do best: selling to your customers. The key is to take time this year to understand what it means to you, and put in place a strategy to get your organization cloud-powered to some degree over the next year or so.

Peter Witham is director and retail lead for Unit4Business Software, the North American subsidiary of UNIT4, a global business software and services company that creates, provides and supports software for businesses delivered via the cloud and on-premise.  For more information, please contact:

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