Bluestore Live Review
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Bluestore Live POS is a newcomer to the POS software landscape, and in theory, at least, it’s got a lot going for it. Bluefish Retail, the developer behind the product, seems to understand the great equalizing power of the Internet. On their website, they describe their software as being “born from the desire to use web concepts to provide independent retailers with enterprise level systems at a fraction of the cost.” Additionally, the website notes, they “are passionate about bringing independent retailers a system to make their life[sic] easier and positively benefit their bottom line.” I probably don’t need to tell you that this is terrible marketing copy, exhibiting a remarkable disconnect with how regular people communicate with one another. So much the better, I thought. These are real coders, better with software than advertising.
There’s not a lot of information on Bluefish Retail, or Bluefish Solutions LTD (an SAP consulting firm), two small businesses out of Twickenham in the UK owned by Jeremy Doyle and Catherine Rachel Thomas. With a little social media investigation, I was able to find out that Doyle is a long time SAP Consultant with a solid track record in the retail space. Thomas, on the other hand, is much harder to find anything out about. But no matter: the Bluefish principals are selling Software as a Service, not themselves, and it’s clear from the design of Blustore that they get what small to midsize retailers need in a POS system. And with some refinement to the console interface, they’ve got the makings of an excellent offering.
Bluestore is a hybrid system, making use of the cloud for all the necessary data storage–inventory, price lists, store information, tax classes, user and customer info, and more are all stored in an administrative console on Bluefish’s servers, accessible through an internet connection. The terminal software, on the hand, is run locally, which means there’s no interruption to a store’s ability to sell if their internet connection goes down. And because the terminal is Java based, it’s inherently platform independent. You can run it on Windows (PC or Tablet), Mac, or Linux. An iOS version is in the works, too, meaning iPad will soon be added to the mix. This reliance on Java also means that there are very few limitations to the number of type of hardware peripherals that can be connected to each terminal–more on that later.
In all, Bluefish has a fairly comprehensive first-go at POS software, though they’re not innovating by any stretch. Rather, Bluestore has the feel of a highly practical approach to POS–it’s modular and flexible and low cost–which on its own should make it attractive to small businesses.
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After a 30 free trial period, Bluestore Live is priced attractively at $30 per month, per store. This basic subscription fee gets you the backend administrative console, a single POS terminal, and web based support. Each additional terminal you run at your store costs only $8 per month. These are all month-to-month subscriptions, by the way, with no cancellation fee; this means that you can add and subtract terminals as they are needed. A retailer who needs to hire extra help during the holiday rush only needs to pay for the extra terminals for the month or two they might need them.
Web-Based or Locally-Installed:
As noted, Bluestore takes a hybrid approach: all the important data–price lists, stock levels, customer info–is stored in the cloud. The POS terminals themselves rely on a local installation, and then sync regularly with the server.
Bluestore would fit right in any kind of retail scenario–from clothing store to coffee shop to small-scale grocery, to a mix of all three. The system would also work well even in a small cafe setting with waitress service. It’s ability to park a sale means you can ring up someone’s order at a table, and then set it aside till they’re ready to pay. This would probably only be manageable with a handful of tables, though, and not suitable for larger restaurants.
Specific Size of Business:
Bluefish says that their aim is small to midsized retailers, and the design of their software is certainly geared towards that crowd. There’s no limit on the number of items you can keep in inventory, though–and when I asked support about this they cited an installation with 30,000 items in it, way beyond midsized. Out of the box, the console is configured as a single-store with a single price-list, and small operations like these are likely Bluefish’s sweet spot. Because the system is so modular, as these small businesses grows, Bluestore Live has the ability to grow with them–adding terminals and more stores is simple–and its possible to start maintaining multiple pricelists from store to store, each centrally located at your console in the cloud.
Ease of Use:
The design of the terminal interface is basic, no frills. Though it will never be confused with a Rembrandt, it will never be confusing, either. Its large buttons, activated by either mouse click or touch screen, are very clear in their function. Ringing up a sale is as obvious as hitting the “SELL” button, and clicking through categories and finding the item you’re looking for. There’s a product search field if you want to type in the item, but, really, a barcode scanner makes the process even easier. For the most part, I was able to figure out terminal functions simply by clicking around and playing with the interface. Stock can be received through the terminal, as well as adding customers during a sale, both very intuitive processes. All this information is synced with the main server so that information remains consistent from Terminal to Terminal.
The admin console is likewise easy to figure out; the only time I consulted a manual or tutorial was when I didn’t understand what certain options did. As far as the layout is concerned, its simplicity is exactly what a small business needs to be efficiently managed. Bluefish does offer Installation and Setup services, though I suspect this would only be necessary for much larger implementations, when data needs to be transferred from a legacy system. The console’s main screen, the Dashboard, offers a single page view of current and recent-past sales summaries, giving a snapshot of hourly sales, daily totals, and receipt totals for each day in the previous two weeks.
Though navigation of the console is well done, some of its human interface aspects can be frustrating. I added some items to inventory, and had a few gripes during this process. The first is that with certain informational fields around an item–like Unit of Measure, Category, or Tax Class–the value can only be set by selecting via drop down menu. I wanted to type in the field and have the drop down narrow the field of selection–for example, if I typed CO, the menu would then only display Coffee, or Cold Drinks–or complete it entirely, as any menu of this type would behave. You can type in the field, but it has no bearing on what’s displayed. I should note also that the items in the drop down menu display after a small pause; an animated icon indicates that it’s loading and then a second or two later all the selections appear. A second or two is not so much, maybe, but with repetitive data entry tasks like this, it becomes an annoyance. It also highlighted another grievance I had: the Tax Class is set at the item level, rather than the group level. It would be so much easier to set this up once–i.e. all items in the Grocery category are not taxable–rather than have to select it each time from a slow moving drop down menu that I can’t type into.
The good news is that this doesn’t have to be the case for large additions of inventory. You can import products via Excel, CSV, or XML files, and Bluefish has an area on their website with downloadable templates for its various import operations. These are easy to populate, and many of the fields can just have the value (Yes, True, False, etc.) copied down columns, leaving only the fields unique to each item to be filled in. We tested out the import process and it worked very smoothly. Still, for small numbers of additions, if you’re only going to add one or two items here and there, some tweaking to the drop down menu behavior is in order.
Hardware and Software Requirements:
As mentioned, Bluestore Live is platform independent, so you can use whatever hardware you might already have–PCs (Windows or Linux), Macs, or even dedicated POS terminals. Because the terminal is a Java app, the Operating System matters less than the version of Java your hardware is running. The initial hardware costs are therefore dependent on whether or not you already have the necessary equipment. If you’re starting from scratch, expect to buy the following for a basic setup:
- A PC or Tablet running Windows or Linux, or a Mac, for the POS terminal.
- A printer for receipts: either a regular desktop printer, or a receipt printer.
- An electronic till for cash transactions.
- A credit card terminal.
- A barcode scanner, because they’re pretty cheap these days, so you might as well make your life easier.
Bluefish Retail doesn’t have a list of compatible hardware, and though they make no guarantees as to what will work, that list will be decidedly more comprehensive than the list of what won’t. For receipt printers, scanners, and tills, the main requirement is that they support Java POS (JPOS) drivers. If your hardware has these drivers, chances are you can use them in a Bluestore Live environment. Customers in the UK and Ireland can purchase directly from Bluefish, otherwise you’re on your own to find a supplier.
There’s nothing in Bluestore’s feature list that differentiates very much from its competitors. Instead its value is centered around its ability to do perform a variety of functions around retail management, all integrated into a single application, with the ability to scale as needed (ensuring you’re not overpaying for enterprise-type features on your Mom and Pop retail shop). The full list of features can be found by scrolling down some here, but some highlights include:
- An always-on POS solution, even when your internet connection goes down: the terminal communicates regularly with the server to sync data, and stores that data locally in the event of an outage.
- Inventory Management: receive stock, reconcile it with physical counts, track quantities in real time.
- Cloud based administration: access your store from anywhere, whether to update inventory or just to keep an eye on sales.
- Staff Timekeeping: this is a nice feature, but could use some tweaks. As its set now, a cashier doesn’t automatically “clock in” when he logs into his terminal, and doesn’t need to if he wants to ring up a sale. A store manager who’s not necessarily going to be at a terminal has to manually enter her time. This feature should be rethought if it’s going to be of use.
- Customer Resource Management: for tracking purchase history and direct marketing to existing shoppers.
Integrations and Add-Ons:
- Magento – Bluestore can connect with your Magento ecommerce installation, so that any sales made on your website are kept are updated in your store POS system, keeping sales totals and inventory levels up to date.
Compatible Credit Card Processors:
Bluestore Live supports any bank owned credit card processor that communicates directly with the bank for processing and authorizing transactions. The cashier then has to enter the amount tendered in Bluestore to complete the sale. Outside of the UK, this is your only option for credit card processing, and it’s not clear whether Bluefish is working to provide tighter integration in the future. UK customers, on the other hand, have the option of using a YesPay chip-and-PIN terminal, which works fully integrates with Bluestore. In either case, you will need a separate merchant account, either with the bank that owns your credit card terminal, or with YesPay, and pay any associated fees directly to them.
Customer Service and Technical Support:
Support is through an online ticketing system only at this point. Fill out the form, submit the request, get your ticket number, and then wait for a response. For me, the wait was never long to hear back, even on a weekend.
I did run into one serious issue during testing, which is a great way to test support out. After playing around with my inventory, I deleted everything out of my demo store. Then I imported a bunch of new products. When I launched the POS Terminal app to see the new changes, it needed to download all the new data. No problem there, but then when it was complete, I had to restart the Terminal, at which point it downloaded the same data, and forced a restart. This went on in an endless loop. I contacted support at about 5:30 PM on a Friday, which is 10:30 PM in the UK. I had a response by the time I woke up the next morning. This seems reasonable for a non-urgent matter (I told them I was just testing), and other questions I’d sent, during normal business hours, had been answered with a 30-minute turnaround. In any case, the support team identified the issue with my Terminal–something in the installation script, and having nothing to do with my updated inventory–and coded a fix for it within 5 business days. There are two ways to look at this:
The first is that support is very responsive–I liked that after filling out the form on the web ticketing system I got nothing but communication from an actual person. They were proactive in keeping me to up date on what was happening. And from a coder’s standpoint, five days isn’t such a long time to ID a glitch in the installation script, especially since I hadn’t sent them any installation logs to maybe make it easier for them to pinpoint the problem.
The second way, though, is from the retailer’s view: five days is a long time to be without a cash-out terminal. Without taking anything away from the programmer’s efforts, I want to be clear that the issue was not with my instance of the POS Terminal specifically. This was for all versions of the Mac installer, which they had recently updated. The update was forced–when I launched my Terminal, it immediately began downloading the new version of the POS. This is bad form. Software updates to critical business applications should always be done at the user’s discretion, during a planned downtime. If I were an actual retailer, opening my doors for business at 9AM, and I was forced to do a software update on my POS at 8:45 when I was trying to get my store ready for customers, I’d be annoyed. If it then happened that the software update was problematic and then made it impossible for me to ring up sales–and my only avenue to support was through a web ticketing system–I might be furious, regardless of how helpful and personable the people at the other end might be.
Negative Reviews and Complaints:
The good news is that a thorough Googling of Bluestore Live in search of user experiences turned up not a single negative review from anyone in its current user base. The bad news it also didn’t turn up a positive review, or a testimonial, or even a hint that there is really any shop using this software. In fact, given how hard it is to find any information on Bluestore from any other source than its own website–no reviews, no press releases, no user forums, no testimonials or “Our Customers” lists, no Facebook or LinkedIn presences–I wonder how many customers they’ve actually got. If I were considering Bluestore Live as my POS system, I’d be worried about their long-term viability as my POS software provider. Bluefish Retail definitely needs to up their game in terms of establishing a presence.
Positive Reviews and Testimonials:
Bluestore Live is easy to set up, easy to use, and will work on a wide variety of hardware. Its designer has a history of working the digital side of retail, and the app shows it. There are a lot of features packed into a very affordable package, which should make it very attractive to small retailers, especially. This is why I opened the review saying that, in theory, the software’s got a lot going for it. In practice, they don’t seem to have many users, which seems a direct result to their complete lack of marketing the product. A potential customer wants to see a company that’s proudly pushing its product; one who lurks in the shadows isn’t likely to win over users.
Bluestore Live could be a small retailer’s dream: intuitive POS interface, integration with an e-commerce platform, and big business features like inventory tracking and a customer information database. The software is designed and programmed to work on and with a wide variety of hardware platforms and POS peripherals, so some established businesses could see minimal upfront costs. Development is continuing for an iPad version, which can only increase the flexibility of its use. And the monthly cost is priced at a level that even the most cash-starved new business could justify using it. There are some user interface issues that ought to be worked out, and though its centralized, cloud based operations are a huge benefit to small shops who can’t invest too much in an IT strategy, more control over the deployment of client side updates is crucial.
Finally, Bluefish Retail needs to get out and push its product. It’s great that they say they are passionate about providing a first class POS system to independent retailers, but they need to show that passion by actually putting on a public face and encouraging people to try what they’ve created. The first live version of Bluestore Live was released just over two years ago, on August 3, 2011. By now, we should be hearing some success stories and seeing a list of places that are happily using the system. Their silence speaks louder than anything else they might have said at this point.