15 Free Software and Tools for Retailers
(This article is courtesy of MicroBiz.com)
Starting or expanding a retail business can be costly, and involve large upfront investments in technology. Depending on the size of your retail business, buying multiple copies of a software program—or its licenses—can quickly drive your balance sheet into the red. While free and low cost alternatives are available, shifting through the Web in the hopes of finding an effective no-cost software solution is very time consuming. Worse yet, many low cost or free applications are poorly designed or missing critical features that could end up costing a retailer much more money (measured in terms of lost time, manpower, and opportunity) than could ever be saved by using a free technology.
So, what’s a business owner on a budget to do? Simple: Read this article. Below, you’ll find 15 superb pieces of software that can increase productivity without costing you a fortune. We included options for most major business functions of a retailer. All but one are either free open source projects or free starter versions that can be upgraded to paid offerings.
A word of warning, however. While premium software typically comes with frequent updates and a helpful support staff that’s just a phone call away, free software can be a bit more rough around the edges—especially when it comes to documentation, ease-of-use, and nuanced feature support. That being said, the applications summarized below are what we believe are the best of the free software offerings for retailers. So, if you are technology adept and willing to try out new applications, we are confident that you will find real value in these applications.
. Mail Chimp
. Survey Monkey
. Zoho CRM
. Orange HRM
. Google Analytics
. Google AdWords Keyword Planner
. Microsoft Security Essentials
If you sell goods locally and are going to try to use any new tool or application from this list, start with GetListed.org! GetListed.org is a free tool designed to help you see where the major local search engines (Google Maps, Yelp, Bing Local, Yahoo Local, and Best of the Web Local) have indexed your business. You simply enter your business name and ZIP code, and GetListed.org pings the search engines to see where they’ve got you listed – or not. It also provides a “listing score” based on the quality or completeness of your listings. If your business is not listed, GetListed.org directs you to the right spot to add yourself to the proper search engine. The tool also provides details on what you can to do to improve your listing score on these local search engines. This is a straightforward and free (yes, you heard it, free) way to improve your local search rankings.
Magento is the world’s most popular free open source ecommerce platform with almost two million users worldwide. Magento is feature-rich and provides online merchants with unprecedented flexibility and control over the look, content, and functionality of their ecommerce store. Magento features powerful marketing, search engine optimization, and catalog-management tools to give you the power to create sites that are tailored to your unique business needs and brand. There are three versions: the free and open source community version (Magento Community); a subscription-based SaaS version (Magento Go); and the commercially licensed version (Magento Enterprise) that’s packed with premium features. Magento is supported by a community of tens of thousands of developers, designers, and consultants who have written thousands of website templates, extensions, and add-ons – as well as having the backing of its current owner eBay Inc. While there are plenty of basic starter site platforms out there, we think it’s wise to start with an ecommerce platform that can grow with your business.
WordPress is a free and open source blogging tool and a content-management system based on PHP and MySQL, which runs on a web hosting service. Its features include a plug-in architecture and a template system. WordPress has about 20 percent market share of all websites worldwide. In addition, WordPress also supports message boards and mini social networks, thanks to a user community that has written a wide range of third-party themes and functionality extensions for WordPress. Despite its broad scope, WordPress makes it as easy to get up and running and to stay on top of updates. We think that this is a no-brainer choice to use to start blogging about your store. And it’s free!
Offline storage is a great way to protect your store data from loss. Dropbox provides free safe offsite storage, plus let’s you share photos, videos, or files easily across just about any device or platform, and you can also get access from any Web browser. Dropbox’s interface is incredibly intuitive. When you install Dropbox on your iPhone or Android device, you’ll have immediate access to your uploaded files. You can also access the folder from other computers or smartphones, or anywhere you have access to a Web browser. Or, you can use the app to share files with other people. You get 2GB free with Dropbox, or you can choose 100GB, 200GB, or 500GB with a monthly fee. The bottom line—for sharing files across platforms, Dropbox is incredibly easy to use with a quick free download and minimal setup time.
Looking to use the power of email to market to your customers or followers? Mail Chimp offers a great product with affordable pricing plans, including a free option for very small users. MailChimp service includes email marketing, event marketing, online surveys, and an extensive collection of “how-to” guides written to help their customers create, deliver, and maximize on their email marketing campaign efforts. MailChimp has over three million customers who love their quirky personality and one of a kind approach to business for this industry. The MailChimp ‘free forever’ plan gives you all you need to get started marketing your retail business via email. Plus you can always upgrade to low cost supported paid plans.
Survey Monkey (http://www.surveymonkey.com)
If you need to learn more about your customers or validate a new idea for potential customers, SurveyMonkey may be just the tool you need. SurveyMonkey is a free survey maker that even a computer-challenged retailer can use to poll their customers. With any free or paid plan, you can create as many surveys and collect as many responses as you want, but with the free basic plan you can view only the first hundred responses on each survey. If you want to view all responses past a hundred, you must upgrade to a paid plan. However, if you are just starting out or need only a small poll or survey, SurveyMonkey should be exactly what you’re looking for.
If you are looking for an alternative to the popular but expensive Microsoft Office suite for creating documents, spreadsheets, databases, and presentations, we recommend trying the free open source LibreOffice application. LibreOffice suite of productivity applications include: Base, Calc, Draw, Impress, Math, and Writer. Each application’s interface looks very familiar to the corresponding Microsoft Office products. While you will need to learn how to navigate through some of the features and remember to save files in the proper formats, the LibreOffice applications work just as well as their pricey competitor’s. Plus they are free! What else can we say? We highly recommend the program for retailers trying to minimize their IT costs.
If you are a small retailer who only needs three or fewer users for your customer relationship management software, then ZohoCRM is the app for you. ZohoCRM is a SaaS application that helps businesses keep track of customers and prospects, conduct email marketing campaigns, capture opt-in lead generation, manage sales opportunities, and more—all through a single, easy-to-use web interface. ZohoCRM’s free version supports 100 megabytes of total storage and up to 100,000 records. If you’re looking for more flexibility or users, you can upgrade to a paid version for a reasonable price. While not specifically tailored to retailers, ZohoCRM delivers a lot of features and functions for free.
Orange HRM (http://www.orangecrm.com)
Managing your human resources is critical in all but the smallest of one-person businesses. That doesn’t mean you need to spend an arm and a leg on premium human resource management software. OrangeHRM is a completely free and open source software application that offers an array of HR modules, such as personal information management (PIM), employee self service (ESS), leave management, time and attendance tracking, and health saving plans. Sound complicated? It’s not. The easy learning curve of OrangeHRM is as big of a selling point as its comprehensiveness. If you need more advanced features or don’t want the hassle of maintaining HRM software on your own hardware, a paid software as a service (Saas) version is available.
Google Analytics (http://www.google.com/analytics)
As store operations continue to blend with the web, retailers need tools to optimize their online activities. Google Analytics is a popular and surprisingly comprehensive free website analytics service. Google Analytics allows you to track page views, visitor information, and conversion rates. You can also set goals that can help interpret data by comparing several factors at once. For example, you can segment conversions (completed purchases) by gender, age, and geography. You can also monitor revenue per click (based on pay-per-click campaigns), return on investment, and profit margin. Adding Google Analytics to your site is easy too. All you have to do is place a short piece of java script on each page you want to monitor. We think that you may find Google Analytics to be the only web analytics tool that you need to analyze your online properties.
Google AdWords Keyword Planner (http://www.adwords.google.com)
Dabbling in buying keywords to drive traffic to your store or ecommerce site? Keyword research is a cornerstone of many online marketing campaigns, whether your tactics include PPC, SEO, or content. Knowing which keywords are popular with online searchers and advertisers can help you develop better content for target audiences and improve return on investment. The AdWords Keyword Planner is a free tool from Google and allows you to identify estimated bids, search volumes, and research new keywords for PPC campaigns. AdWords Keyword Planner does require you to set up a Google AdWords account to use it. But if you are a retailer that currently does or wants to do some online marketing, this is a great free starter tool.
Windows Defender / Microsoft Security Essentials (http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/security-essentials-download)
Why spend money for third party desktop security services? Microsoft Windows Defender/Security Essentials is a free security suite from Microsoft that ships pre-installed with Windows 8 PCs. In the latest version of Windows, Microsoft merged AV and anti-spyware apps into a single, unified program. While larger retailers may need more robust security options than Microsoft’s free solutions provide, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with keeping Microsoft’s highly functional (and highly free) antivirus app if you want to save some money. You will have to deal with some of its limitations, such as the lack of ability to report to a centralized authority about viruses found or updates needed. But, if this is not an issue, Defender/Security Essentials deliver a lot of value for a free service for your Microsoft devices.
Staying current with your social streams can be very time consuming and cumbersome. Social media dashboard HootSuite can help make managing social networks more efficient. HootSuite’s free plan allows you to link your networks and display up to five of your primary social streams on your screen at the same time. HootSuite’s analytics are what really set it apart from competitors, allowing you to home in on the dynamics occurring in your social network and develop marketing plans based on that information. You can upgrade to a paid version of HootSuite for a very reasonable price of $5.99/month, giving you much more flexibility, unlimited social network feeds, and many more reporting tools. But for most small retailers, the free service is good enough.
GnuCash is an open source accounting program that uses a checkbook-style interface to track basic incomes and expenditures. The software was built with small business accounting in mind, complete with a variety of report options (including profit and loss statements), customer and vendor tracking, invoice management, check printing, payroll management, and a lot more. It does not, however, include dedicated inventory or POS tools. Despite the overall simplicity of using the program, the sheer number of terms and actions can get to be a bit overwhelming for those “non-accountant types.” GnuCash is an ongoing project, so new releases many not be as stable as earlier versions. Given the critical nature of accounting to retailers, we generally recommend paid accounting software such as Xero or Quickbooks, but if you are really an open source zealot and can deal with some bugs and set-up issues, GnuCash is freeware you should try.
OK, this one is not free. But a retailer’s point of sale/inventory management system is the core system to manage a retailer’s operations, so we think this is too critical to be trusted with a free solution. Therefore, this is one area that we do not recommend cutting corners on. So, what system do we recommend? Why, MicroBiz Cloud of course! MicroBiz allows small to mid-sized retailers to ring up sales and accept payments using a variety of devices (iPads, Android tablets, Mac’s, PC’s), view real-time inventory across multiple locations, and manage sophisticated back-end operations. The application seamlessly integrates with the free Magento ecommerce platform, enabling stores and ecommerce sites to be operated from a single application. The automation features of MicroBiz can save a retailer hours and hours of time each month, dwarfing any savings that could be achieved from cheap or free POS alternatives.
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