The days of key personnel being in the office from nine to five are long gone. With 4G and Wi-Fi now readily available, there is no reason why staff should not be able to access any information they require, at any time, regardless of their office system or network. Peter Holdich believes that now is a good time for wholesalers and retailers to have their heads in the cloud …

There is now a number of ways to access and share data, and this can even be free for small amounts – although full subscription packages for multi-user licences can prove expensive.

Cloud storage and sharing services such as Dropbox enable a business to quickly set up a network for users to store any type of data directly from a PC, Mac or mobile device by simply saving to a folder which saves to a hard drive and seamlessly uploads the file to the cloud.

They are usually free for about 2GB of data, which would be ample for basic document and image storing – especially when you consider that 10 years ago the hard drive on your computer would probably have had a lot less than that capacity.

It is still fairly inexpensive to increase the size of your online storage and use it similar to an external hard drive that can be used on different machines. The advantage of the cloud, though, is that you don’t physically need to unplug it and take the data with you – all you need to do is log in.

For a serious replacement of your server, Dropbox for Business offers similar functionality but with unlimited amounts of storage. It also retains every file you have ever stored, so it makes recovery or obtaining earlier versions of a document easy. The sharing will also work like a conventional server, so your employees can have different levels of access and folder permissions. With costs starting at about £500 a year for five users, it certainly is an option, and a cost-effective way of entering into cloud storage.

For the full package, cloud-based management systems are now becoming readily available, and offer a variety of options, from stock management to accounts packages. These are generally a generic system tailored to meet most – but not all – requirements in a furniture retailer, wholesaler or manufacturer, although there are systems now available that have been designed specifically with the furniture trade in mind.

When choosing your new management system there are a number of questions you need to ask – firstly to yourself, and secondly of the provider – to make sure you are going to get the best from your new system:

Is it user friendly?
Some packages have been adapted from accounts-based systems and expect the user to have an accounts degree, using language that may be understood by men in pinstripe suits, but which baffles the humble administrator. So look for a plain English package which can be understood from the post room to the boardroom.

Will it do everything my business needs?
Again, with a package being created from the accounts up, the functionality for ordering, stock control and product specification can usually be a little basic, and you may have to end up making do with the limitations of the system.

Who needs to use the system?
Is it just for you, or does the whole business need access from your warehouse to your directors? The more comprehensive systems, and ones that understand what the furniture trade requires, can allow different levels of access depending on the user, filtering results out so you don’t need to worry about your sales staff knowing how much you paid for the product, or your administrator inadvertently placing an order for thousands of widgets!

Do I need people from outside the business to have access?
If you would like to interact with your customers and make sure they have relevant data – such as images and pricelists – outside of your business hours, then the answer would be yes. So, can the system accommodate this, and can they get delivery times and track their orders or deliveries?

Do we need to share documents on the system?
If you want everything in one place then yes, otherwise the Dropbox-style applications are the alternative. There are systems available that allow for hi-res images and documents to be selectively shared, so again only the relevant users can see the relevant information.

How much do I want to spend?
Some systems appear very good value, and the accounts-only ones are very good value, starting at around £15 per month, but do offer very limited capabilities. Otherwise, watch out for the low advertised prices of the full management systems – on the face of it £69 a month sounds like great value, but this would be per user, so by the time you have 10 users it can become very expensive.

So, to keep on the move, is now the right time to move into the cloud?

Peter Holdich is the founder of ZigZag Systems, a company offering cloud-based management systems for wholesalers and retailers. Peter also works as a consultant to the furniture trade, assisting businesses with their systems and marketing.