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Till Security Counts

​A TEXAS SUPERMARKET CHAIN with a reputation for unparalleled customer service is also building a reputation as a user of innovative technology. Last year, the company ran a pilot program with an automated cash management system meant to track and secure money as well as reduce labor costs. The outcome far exceeded expectations and set the stage for large-scale savings.

United Supermarkets, which was founded in Oklahoma in 1916, now comprises 50 stores in west and north Texas under the names United Supermarkets, Market Street, and Amigos United. It is headquartered in Lubbock, Texas.

Todd Reynolds, the company’s director of loss prevention, who is constantly on the lookout for technology that can help boost the company’s bottom line, wanted to make the process of money handling, counting, and daily cashier-till preparation more efficient, quicker, and more accurate. He also wanted to reduce risk by cutting the amount of time that cash is not locked in a safe or inside a register.

The chain was not “having cash handling issues, per se,” Reynolds states. In fact, “Our cash shortages are less than 1/100th of a percent of sales. Probably the industry is at 2/100ths of a percent, and so we’re half, or less than half, of the industry standard,” he explains.

The real impetus for the search was labor costs. “We have a lot of manual procedures that help us manage shortages at that level, and it quite frankly takes a lot of labor.” For example, he says, “The store managers and morning bookkeepers come in and double count the safe, prepare the deposit, and…make all of the cash tills that are going to be used throughout the day,” Reynold says. “So that takes several hours of hand counting and sorting and collating.”

When the cashiers arrive, they request their tills, then head to their checkout lines. When they return for breaks or lunch, “they have to turn the tills in to a member of management who has to store them, and then when…the cashiers come back, someone has to get the tills for them,” Whenever a shift ends, tills have to be turned in and stored until the closing bookkeeper arrives to manually count them.

“Again, it’s a lot of time and a lot of manpower,” states Reynolds. “It is an area of operations where we can make things more efficient and automated, and then retask some team members to be more service-oriented than administrative.”

In early 2009, Reynolds began his research. “I had seen some different concepts and products at trade shows, but I didn’t really like what I had seen. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for,” he recalls. For instance, one manufacturer had “some coin-counting and cash-dispensing safes, but they weren’t integrated.”

In April 2009, Reynolds heard of possible solutions from Tidel of Carrolton, Texas, a company that has been creating cash-handling technology for decades. Reynolds traveled to Tidel’s headquarters to view some of the technology, including the recently unveiled Revolution, a cash and coin automation and recycling system built specifically for large-volume retailers.

It seemed to fit what Reynolds wanted. He anticipated that it could automate manual processes and save a lot of staff time. He decided to try the system out in four United Supermarkets locations beginning in July 2009.

Each Revolution unit is about the size of a large office photocopier. It combines a drop vault, 15-inch touch-screen user interface, system hardware and software, cash and coin counters and dispensers, and a biometric palm scanner.

With this system, when cashiers arrive at work, they don’t need to collect their day’s tills from supervisors who received them from bookkeepers who prepared them in the predawn hours. A cashier instead goes to the machine and places his or her palm on the reader. Once the unit recognizes the cashier, he or she picks up an empty till with an attached bar code, and the machine scans it, linking the till to the cashier for that shift. The till is then inserted into a slot, and the unit automatically dispenses the correct amount of bills and coins.

The cashier removes the till and scans the bar code off a canvas bag in which he or she will place all of the checks, coupons, rain checks, or any other “media” that are collected in the course of the day’s transactions. Reynolds, who has timed the process, says it takes less than a minute to complete.

He explains that the system is programmed to give out exactly the amount of cash and coins that has been approved for that employee, based on their position. “If you’re a [checkout] cashier, when you start your shift, it dispenses the opening funds accordingly; if you’re a pharmacy or a deli or a service-counter cashier,” it pays out what is preprogrammed by the store’s head managers with guidance from the corporate office. Therefore, he says, the system can “change from store to store based on need; it doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all. It is completely customizable in that regard.”

There are no manual logs. “The machine automatically notes the entire transaction down to the penny. You know who got how much of what exactly and when,” he adds.

The machine also lessens risk exposure when cashiers take lunch or breaks. It used to be that the tills were vulnerable during those times “even if they were being stored in the cash office. There was still some exposure there,” Reynolds says.

Now, the cashiers can go to the machine and scan their palms, scan the bar codes on the tills, then take all the bills and coins and place them into the machine, which counts them and makes a record of the amounts.

Because the cashiers can do this at lunch and break times, it saves store managers from having to manually “trim” the cash drawers of surplus funds throughout the day, “which saves a tremendous amount of labor,” Reynolds says. When the cashiers return, they repeat the same process they undertook in the morning to refresh their tills with the preauthorized cash and coin amounts for their specific positions.

At the end of their shifts, the cashiers again offload their tills in the same way, also scanning the bar code on the bags of checks and other media, then depositing them into the machine’s drop vaults for the morning bookkeepers to recover.

Reynolds states that in the event of an armed robbery, if a cashier or manager is forced to scan their hand, the machine will only release the amount preapproved for that employee. Duress codes and silent alarms can potentially be programmed if the machine is attached to an alarm point—something Reynolds is considering for the future.

Reporting back. The unit includes a printer that creates a receipt for all transactions that occur with the machine. It compiles a daily report automatically. In addition, information on transactions can be combined to produce any number of custom reports by preferred variables on demand. “Based on your level of accessibility, you can see different reports,” says Reynolds.

The unit can also be married to the store’s point-of-sale (POS) system. “We are in the process of integrating it with the POS system right now. We are talking with our POS service provider as well as Tidel to facilitate that integration,” says Reynolds.

Easy install. Each Revolution unit came to the test stores on two pallets, explains Reynolds. An integrator from Tidel assembled it and trained the store employees on its use. “That whole process took about two hours,” he states.

In the case of system problems, such as jams and glitches, the viewing screen can display videos that walk managers through fixing the issue to reduce servicing downtime.

Store managers were trained on the enrollment process, which works as follows: They go to a screen that allows them to enroll a cashier and set his or her parameters, explains Reynolds. “You type in their name and have them scan their hand several times for different reference points, and that’s about it.”

The pilot program that began in July 2009 was scheduled to last for 90 days, but within six weeks “we knew that this was something that was going to work for some of our stores, so we went ahead and started to purchase them,” he notes.

The units were installed in six stores in 2010. The company is in the process of evaluating how many it will purchase this year. As far as the cost, Reynolds says only that “for any chain, including ours, it’s a significant capital investment. We negotiated a fair cost.”

He adds that “we foresee a ROI averaging at about 14 to 18 months—and those are just looking at labor reduction costs. If you take into account banking fees and other more complicated calculations, you reduce that ROI even further. It is a very practical investment.”

As to how many units the company is considering purchasing, he says, “We have some really small stores in small rural towns that this solution is not appropriate for, so I can’t say the Revolution is going to be a chainwide deployment, but where it makes sense, we’ve made the decision that we’re going to do it.”