It may be tiny, but the Square credit card reader is making big waves in the retail world. The reader, which plugs into the headphone jack of an iPad, iPhone or Android device, allows merchants to accept credit and debit card payments in exchange for a flat, per-swipe transaction fee of 2.75%. The reader and its accompanying app, meanwhile, are free.
In the face of high swipe fees imposed by banks, Square's model makes for an attractive alternative for many small businesses. The amount banks can charge for debit card swipes recently was capped at 21 cents, down from an average of 44 cents, as the result of recent legislation, but that's still enough to dissuade some smaller merchants from accepting plastic.
Square, the California-based mobile payments venture created by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, in June announced a $100 million cash infusion, and recently went mainstream by offering its reader at Walmart stores. The company has shipped 8,000 of its readers across the country, and is processing $2 billion in payments annually, according to a spokeswoman.
In Maine, the company reports nearly 2,000 merchants are using its mobile payment system. That includes Hannah Warren, owner of Eden Valley Bakers in Fryeburg. She began using the reader in July, after previously accepting only cash and checks. Now, she can email or text a receipt to her customers by the time they walk out the door, and have buyers of her breads and muffins sign for a purchase with the swipe of a finger on her iPad. "I wouldn't go back to a cash register at this point," she says.
The Square app also allows her access to new analytics. Warren, who worked in corporate financial systems for nearly three decades before opening the bakery in 2007, can track each item sold, the date and time, and the amount. By inputting the data into a spreadsheet program, she can examine a given timeframe to see, for example, how many baguettes she sold. Each transaction is confirmed by email and the funds are deposited promptly to her account, some days before she arrives at the bank with her cash deposits. "Not only does Square meet my needs from a credit card perspective, it also meets my needs from a more nimble cash register perspective," Warren says.
The service can be slow, depending on cellular traffic at the nearest tower, as well as on the quality of the card being swiped. But Warren is confident that customers are spending more than they would with cash or checks. Instead of picking up just a loaf of bread with the bills they have on hand, customers will add some olive oil or a can of tea to their purchase, too, she says.
So far, her customers are intrigued by the new technology. "We can be technologically savvy here in the state of Maine," Warren says.
While Idexx and Pine State Trading have invested heavily in custom tablet technology, plenty of Maine businesses are experimenting with iPads on a smaller scale.
Charles Petersen, president and CEO of Biddeford Savings Bank, saw his son toting around an iPad while home from college, and knew he had to have one. Petersen scooped up one of the devices for himself and brought it to a board meeting, loaded with a few relevant documents.
The bank's other directors were intrigued, and soon the group decided it made little sense to print out, collate and mail a couple thousand pages of material each month for their regular meetings. Now, the seven directors and six bank executives each have an iPad, which they use to review, highlight and bookmark a PDF version of their board packets using an app called GoodReader. “Everyone was on board,” Petersen says. “And a couple of the folks were not people who were really into technology before.”
Biddeford Savings' $6,500 investment in the tablets has also facilitated the executive management team's quarterly book club meetings. The group recently used a Kindle app to buy “The Value Profit Chain,” its latest read, for much less than the hard copy version. “Historically, the business world was a PC world or a Microsoft world, but now the interface is a little bit easier,” Petersen says.
At MEMIC, the workers' compensation insurer in Portland, about a dozen employees are experimenting with iPads, says Catherine Lamson, senior VP and chief administrative officer. The tablets come in handy particularly for reading documents and email, she says. “iPhones are great, but the screens are only three inches,” she says. The company has received good feedback after purchasing the devices about nine months ago, but hasn't yet determined whether they'll be a successful addition. “It's a huge investment, too, these things aren't cheap,” she says. iPad2s start at $499.
Still, the tablets are sure to shape business communications in the months and years to come, Lamson says. “I can see that these are going to be folded into our business lives,” she says.
When a veterinarian uses one of Idexx Laboratories' digital X-ray systems to examine a dog's broken leg or investigate swelling in a horse's knee, they're already one step ahead in the technology game. But while digitizing traditional film X-rays comes with a host of benefits for a veterinary practice, it can actually complicate one crucial step in the process. Results from digital X-rays are displayed, naturally, on a computer screen, often in a back area of the clinic ill-suited to meeting with clients. That makes communicating the results, and therefore the value of the service, more difficult.
Idexx has found a solution in yet another form of technology. Its new mobile app allows vets to display radiographs on a tablet computer. "The move to the iPad liberates that information," says Jonathan Ayers, the Westbrook company's president and CEO. Pet owners typically pay out of pocket for their animal's veterinary services, and don't always understand the level of care involved, he says. When a vet can take an X-ray, share it in a matter of seconds and explain the results effectively, clients are much more likely to recognize the benefits — and pay for them.
Apple's game-changing iPad is making its way into board rooms and sales meetings all over the country. The notoriously secretive company wouldn't release how many iPad business accounts it has in Maine, but has reported that 93% of Fortune 500 companies are testing or deploying the tablets. Auto maker Mercedes is using iPads to enable its dealers to record customer information while seated in one of its vehicles, while Gap has introduced an app that presents detailed product information, stories from designers and, of course, the option to buy a pair of jeans.
A March report by Forrester Research of Boston expounded on the business benefits of tablets. "In particular, tablets are less intrusive than laptops for retrieving information during a meeting; they are better reading and email devices than smartphones; they are more interactive and engaging than paper collateral in a sales meeting; they are more convenient than a laptop for accomplishing a simple task away from a desk; they are friendlier than laptops in a sales situation," the report states.
Forrester predicts tablet sales to grow from 10.3 million in 2010 to 44 million in 2015, putting the devices into the hands of 82 million consumers in the United States alone.
Locally, businesses large and small are using iPads to do everything from simply sharing meeting documents all the way to making significant, deeply integrated investments.
Idexx's I-Vision Mobile app interfaces with the company's imaging software, and also allows vets to email test results to clients, order radiographs and submit cases to Idexx's telemedicine consultants. "We built the app to be more comprehensive than just showing an image," says Penny Guyton, director of marketing for Idexx Digital. Her team developed the app in-house, turning it around at a breakneck period of just three months. The app came on the market on Oct. 1.
Also available for purchase bundled with an iPad and compatible with Android devices, I-Vision Mobile marks Idexx's first foray into developing apps for its customers. Ayers sees it as a significant revenue source going forward. "We think it helps grow our sales because we're the first that has done anything like this with veterinarians," he says. Helping vets do business helps Idexx do business, Ayers explains. "When they inspire their clients, the pet owners, they grow faster," he says. "And when they grow faster, they need to buy more of our products." By selling a $295 app, Idexx opens the door for a veterinarian to purchase one of its $50,000 digital radiography systems.
The company also plans to roll out iPads to its sales force of roughly 300 in the spring, allowing them to access Idexx's customer service system on the go. Product demos and marketing literature will be at their fingertips. "When they meet with clients, the laptop stands up and almost creates a barrier between you and the customer," says Sarah Grassi, a manager at Idexx. "[The iPad] is just more of an interactive experience."
By exploiting the iPad's functionality to not only improve access to its products but also enhance the value of the products themselves, Idexx is at the cutting edge of business strategy around the new technology. The company's executive management team also uses iPads. "It spurs our imagination for other ways they can be used in our products to help us grow the business," Ayers says.
A year ago, Pine State Trading's sales reps lugged heavy bags loaded with product information around to clients all over New England and New York. The Augusta-based company, which markets and distributes convenience and beverage products, kept its 5,000 customers up to date with "push sheets" listing current products and pricing.
Today, instead of shoulder-stressing three-ring binders, Pine State's 80 sales staffers each carries around a 1.3-pound iPad2. The tablets operate a custom app developed for Pine State by Pinnacle IT of Waterville, which features products by category, such as candy and snacks, and also allows sales reps to email fliers as PDFs, and access videos, photos, MP3 files and documents. "It has exceeded any and all of our expectations," says Keith Canning, one of Pine State's owners.
Canning became familiar with app technology about four years ago, downloading off-the-shelf applications for his iPhone through Apple's app store. When the iPad came along, he saw potential for a more streamlined approach to his company's sales, not only by making sales information more accessible, but also by presenting that data to customers more intelligently.
The company invested about $150,000 for the iPads and the app development. So far, the effort has boosted sales by at least eight or nine points and improved customer satisfaction and communication, Canning says. "Within the first year, we've been able to recoup all that [investment,] not including the sales increase," he says. Pine State realized significant savings from slashing its printing, copying and mailing costs.
After launching a pilot program with the first-generation iPad to about 20 users, Pine State expanded the program at a January kickoff meeting to its full sales force of 80, as well as some support staff. Canning says he anticipated encountering some resistance to the technology, but his employees surprised him. "By the end of the day, everyone was very comfortable with them," he says.
Pine State continues to find new ways to utilize the tablets, Canning says. "I don't think we anticipated it being as successful and revolutionary as it turned out to be."