Robin Key, System Accountant at the U.S. Forest Service, oversees the agency’s POS system. 

Mar 09 2020

As Fewer People Carry Cash, Agencies Evolve POS Systems

Forest Service, DOD commissaries and others install hardware that takes payments via card online and in person.

Until recently, people wanting to cut a glorious natural Christmas tree from certain locations in one of the country’s national forests had to bring hard cash along with their axes. But since 2018, holiday lumberjacks have been able to pay for the privilege online, under a pilot program run by the U.S. Forest Service.

During Christmas tree season, people visiting the new Open Forest website — created in collaboration with the General Services Administration’s 18F digital services incubator program — are able to pay online for the tree of their dreams. Permits sell for $5 to $20, and the Open Forest site explains where and when in the national forests people may harvest their trees.

“The Forest Service wanted to make their permits and applications available online to create a more predictable application process that was not limited to regular business hours,” 18F representatives said when the program launched, according to Federal Times.

To make it work, the Forest Service ensured that the point-of-sale (POS) system already in place could support online payments.

Point-of-Sale Systems Reduce Friction in Transactions 

As society goes increasingly cashless, from credit cards and e-commerce to digital wallets, federal agencies that accept payments have been following the lead of private sector retailers, developing POS systems that reduce payment friction in their transactions with the public and their own employees.

“POS systems are progressing, but probably not as quickly as most consumers would like,” says Bob Eastman, a retail analyst from research firm IDC. “Organizations are realizing there needs to be more omnichannel convergence. For government it can be especially challenging to make progress because their customers — employees and the public — are so diverse.”

For the Forest Service, many of the payments it collects are taken in forests or at national landmarks. And what had been cash-based for years has evolved into something more modern.

“For a while, many of our locations couldn’t accept credit cards, leaving them with a cash-based process that was labor-intensive,” says Daniel Cha, administrative program manager at the Forest Service.

The agency adopted Oracle Retail in 2009 and has been adding features and services over the ensuing years. In 2016, it upgraded to Oracle Retail version 14 to support distributed Verifone EMV (or Europay, Mastercard, Visa) devices that accept credit cards containing EMV chips, as mandated by those three payment processors. 

Today, anyone walking into a Forest Service location that takes payments will find a laptop running Oracle Retail and an attached Verifone EMV reader. Because of the distributed nature of many Forest Service locations, each has a local server for processing payments via pay.gov, and each server syncs back to the agency’s central data center.

The Open Forest system processes online credit card transactions via pay.gov, which passes payment information back to the Forest Service’s POS; that device can accept certain transaction metadata from pay.gov. The POS system is set up so forest administrators can generate reports about Christmas tree permit sales within the Open Forest program.

“We take payments for a variety of things — trees, maps, permits, recreation passes, even permits for filming movies,” explains Robin Key, system accountant at the Forest Service who oversees the agency’s POS system. 

When the Forest Service upgraded its POS system to comply with EMV in 2016, Key says, the agency saw a spike in both credit card transactions and revenue. Today, the system supports credit card payments at 734 sites across 124 national forests and regional offices. Since it launched a decade ago, the POS system has processed 5 million transactions and $500 million.

READ MORE: Find out how the IRS wants to use mobile tech to collect overdue taxes.

DeCA, CBP Upgrade Their POS Systems

Other agencies are also looking to implement new POS systems in order to better serve their customers. The Defense Commissary Agency is in the process of rolling out a new POS system at its military commissaries around the world.

“DeCA’s legacy point-of-sale system was deployed in 2006-2008 and has exceeded it useful life,” according to a statement from the agency. “DeCA needed new POS software and hardware that was designed upfront to help DeCA run its commissaries more efficiently, create exceptional patron experiences, and lower total cost of ownership to the agency.”

DeCA’s POS solution, procured under the Enterprise Business Solution contract vehicle, is composed of NCR’s Emerald next-generation POS software. According to DeCA, Emerald combines enterprise POS and integrated payments with the capability to support a full range of retail-specific hardware, software and services. 

Out of the box, it integrates with several core functions DeCA needed for its POS rollout, including self-checkout, loyalty programs, merchandising, pricing and management.

$500 million

The amount that the U.S. Forest Service's POS system has processed since it launched a decade ago.

Source: U.S. Forest Service

“With Central Configuration Manager (CCM), enterprise level configuration is applied real-time without additional store configuration through the use of advanced business rule management and automated updates,” according to the statement. 

The agency is using Emerald’s Cashier Analyzer feature to get a sense of cashier performance and proactively prevent fraud. Representatives say the platform’s Central Electronic Journal function makes it easy to look up transactions and receipts across all DeCA stores.

DeCA officials say it has rolled out the new POS system to 49 of its 235 stores and aims to complete the upgrade in two more years.

At U.S. Customs and Border Protection, agency officials are upgrading POS systems at about 150 points of entry where it collects duties.

“The CBP Revenue Modernization program is preparing to deploy new POS software upgrades to existing cash registers,” says a CBP spokesperson. “The POS upgrade will provide a modern, secure platform, enabling customers at CBP ports of entry to benefit from a simplified cashier processes, EMV technology and the capability to offer enhanced payment options.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: See how the Mine Safety and Health Administration's deployment of tablets has boosted its flexibility. 

Integration Challenges and the Path Ahead

The challenging issue with government POS systems, says Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights, is the way they tie into back-end systems.

“A lot of that depends on the regulations and accounting practices governing an organization,” he says. “Some depends on the financial system an agency uses and how they process payments. Is it real time? Does the agency do batch processing? There are a lot of system integration issues that come with payment systems.”

Still, the path is clear, says Eastman, “For a long time, a point-of-sale system was thought to be something you never wanted to switch out because it’s so important. And because in some cases, the combination of goods and services could be so complicated that recreating them in a new POS would be difficult. 

“In the past couple of years, however, because of omnichannel expectations, groups have found they just can’t stay with their current POS systems,” he adds. “In addition, organizations are finding they want to be able to pull a lot more data out of their POS systems, and they can’t do that with a lot of legacy systems.”

Key says the Forest Service is always looking to improve the customer experience and stay abreast of advances in technology. For example, the Forest Service is also testing an inventory management module that will tie into its POS systems and give the agency better insight into its performance and business requirements. 

And although the Forest Service’s POS platform does support cashless payment systems such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet through its integration of Verifone EMV devices, Key says there hasn’t been much demand for it. 

Contactless payment has been slow to catch on everywhere. “In the U.S., it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation,” Eastman says. “Enterprises and their POS vendors are looking to see how quickly the public adapts to contactless payments before they go through the trouble of putting it into their POS systems, and consumers are slow to adopt contactless and digital wallets because they’re waiting until it’s accepted across a wider number of outlets.”

Going forward, Eastman believes, more organizations will move POS systems to the cloud. “It’s still a bit early, but we see POS vendors offering cloud solutions because there’s less burden on system operators to upgrade their systems or add features, especially across multiple locations where they’re accepting payments.”

Ultimately, Key says, the Forest Service wants to be able to explore whatever new services become available to help the agency better serve its user community. Right now, she says, the Forest Service’s POS modernization, “Is the greatest thing happening.”

Photography by Jonathan Timmes