Rewriting the rulebook
To build its revolutionary new platform, Quetzal realized that it needed to rewrite the rulebook for POS software development. Instead of using traditional custom-built POS hardware, the solution would be designed entirely for use on the Apple iPad. And instead of relying on a traditional relational database to manage its clients’ data, the company decided to use a much more flexible and scalable NoSQL solution: IBM® Cloudant®, a fully managed JSON document store.
Doug Stewart comments: “In our previous careers, we had all worked on building general-purpose POS systems based on relational databases. There was always a lot of complexity, which drove up maintenance and support costs, and made it difficult for smaller retailers to afford anything other than the most basic system.
“With Quetzal, we took the opposite approach: instead of building a solution that tried to do everything for every type of retailer, we built one that is tightly focused on the needs of the clothing and shoe sector. This allows us to offer a much deeper, more relevant set of features without increasing the overall complexity. And from a technical point of view, we took the same approach: the key was to keep everything simple so that we could develop and enhance the functionality quickly without a rigid architecture getting in the way.”
Greg Nacu, Lead Software Developer at Quetzal, explains: “From our perspective, Cloudant has several huge advantages over a relational database. First, the NoSQL approach means we don’t have to plan all our data structures from the start, which makes it much more versatile—so if we need to add something, it doesn’t require a redesign of the whole schema.
“Second, we can use Cloudant Sync to provide a seamless user experience both online and offline—so even if a client doesn’t have great connectivity in every part of their store, it doesn’t matter. The transactions are still all captured safely and stored locally in JSON format by the iPad app. They will then be uploaded to Cloudant as soon as the iPad reconnects to the internet.
“This completely eliminates the complex synchronization issues that cause so many problems with offline transactions in a traditional architecture—and it’s a feature that is not available from many of Cloudant’s competitors in the NoSQL space either.
Doug Stewart adds: “With Cloudant, we also get the enterprise scalability we need. Although each of our individual customers may be relatively small, we need to be able to support thousands of stores in total—so the fact that Cloudant can scale seamlessly just by adding more nodes to the cluster is a big advantage. And having it all hosted and managed by the IBM Cloud Data Services team means that we can focus on application development, not database administration.”
Revitalizing the retail sector
The impact of Quetzal’s new POS system on small retailers’ ability to compete with big-box stores is immediate. Greg Nacu explains: “It’s like the Moneyball effect in baseball: if you give the little guy the data to make smarter decisions, it helps to cancel out the advantage of the big guy being bigger. Our apps give small business owners access to the kind of analytics that until now, only the largest chains have been able to afford.”
For example, Quetzal can analyze the purchase history of regular customers, and instantly generate a word cloud visualization that shows the sales assistant the types, styles, brands, colors and sizes of clothes or shoes that the customer is likely to be interested in.
Doug Stewart says: “Imagine someone comes in to buy some shoes or a belt, but their word cloud emphasizes words like ‘black’, ‘Louis Vuitton’ and ‘handbag.’ That’s a clear opportunity to show them the latest collection of bags—and something a sales assistant would likely miss unless they had served that customer before. For businesses that are looking to expand from one or two stores to five or ten, you can’t rely on knowing or remembering every single customer, so this kind of insight is vital to help maintain personalized service as the business grows.”
Similarly, the size and color matrix that is critical for apparel purchasing and inventory management is built into Quetzal at a fundamental level. With a few taps on their iPad screen, a store manager can see what sizes and colors are selling, how many of each are in stock, how long that stock will last at the current rate of sale, and when a new order needs to be placed. Instead of retailers spending hours tracking inventory and forecasting sales in spreadsheets—or simply relying on guesswork and gut-feeling—Quetzal puts all the data at their fingertips, and presents it in a way that is easy to understand and digest.
Doug Stewart comments: “Quetzal is all about making the hard parts of retail easy for smaller players, automating as much as possible, and giving them more time to focus on what they do best. And what Quetzal does for our customers as retailers, Cloudant does for us as software developers: it takes care of a lot of the difficult back-end work, and lets us concentrate on building richer functionality and an even more beautiful and efficient interface.”
Greg Nacu puts the benefits into numbers: “With Cloudant, we can offer a seamless, reliable offline experience—so our support desk sees about 90 percent fewer issues with transaction synchronization than other POS systems we’ve worked on. And IBM’s cloud hosting and management of the Cloudant environment make it about 95 percent cheaper than hosting our own servers at a data center—which helps us keep our solution affordable for even the smallest retailers.
“Furthermore, the flexibility of the schema-less architecture and the JSON document structure mean that our time-to-market for new features can be accelerated massively. For example, we recently introduced a new connector to integrate Quetzal with a third-party e-commerce system’s size and color matrix, and we developed it three times faster than would have been possible with a relational database.”
Doug Stewart concludes: “With IBM’s help, Quetzal is leveling the playing field for smaller retailers by not only bringing enterprise-class analytics tools within their reach, but also making them intuitive and easy to use. Our simple and beautiful design philosophy is obvious from the interface of our iPad app, but it also extends right through our technical architecture—and Cloudant plays a huge role in keeping our solution flexible, scalable and agile from end to end.”