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Beyond Line Busting

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Mobile’s greatest asset is perhaps its “anytime, anywhere” model. But when it comes to retail, there’s no location more important than right by the customer’s side. While some retailers still desire to offer an autonomous shopping experience through technology, an increasing number are focused on providing constant shopper attention instead — and using mobile devices to attend to questions and needs on the spot.

“When sales representatives are armed with images, related products and product information, they can be knowledgeable geniuses,” says Dax Dasilva, founder and CEO of software company LightSpeed, which offers an interactive point of sale platform for the iPad that scans inventory, details products not on the selling floor and reduces checkout lines. “They can be more involved in the sale…. It’s like offering the consumer the whole concert as opposed to just downloading an MP3. It’s the best of online, plus the human element.”

Consumer expectations
In-store mobile is all about empowerment — if customers can compare prices, read reviews and even see whether products are available, shouldn’t store associates be able to do the same?

According to “The Connected Consumer 2012: Evolving Behavior Patterns,” an Oracle survey of more than 1,000 consumers, store associates make a big difference; 40 percent of respondents said a savvy store associate can impact their final product selection more than a website. As a result, says David Dorf, Oracle’s senior director of technology strategy, “a lot of retailers need to invest in their store associates, and make sure they’re armed with at least as much information about their products as can be found on the web.”

While some retailers believe the primary goal of mobile POS (mPOS) is “line busting” — allowing associates to complete transactions away from a traditional register — it’s only part of the picture. Consider Sephora: In late 2011, the beauty retailer opened a store without cash wrap; one of Sephora’s Manhattan locations became its first completely mobile checkout model in the U.S. with help from SAP, Agilysys and RedIron.

“Clients have come to expect convenience and speed in all aspects of their shopping experience, whether online or in stores,” says Shah Nagree, Sephora vice president of store systems. “They do not want to wait in line, and by reducing or eliminating that wait, it shows that we respect them and value their time.” Sephora customers already had the ability to use a mobile website for discovering and sharing ratings and reviews. “Our clients are very tech-savvy and want to use their iOS devices for more and more,” Nagree says. “It truly enhances their in-store experience.”

The same could be said for store associates. Colin Haig, retail program principal at SAP AG, says employees — especially younger ones — are already accustomed to using smartphones for texting or photos. It’s a natural fit, then, to do the same during work. The good news is that associates often don’t need much training to use mPOS devices, and interfaces are becoming increasingly intuitive.

And then there are solutions, like those from LightSpeed, that use already-familiar Apple technology. “There’s a degree of predictability and maturity in how it’s put together,” Dasilva says. “We know our customers are going to be successful because the platform is built with that consideration.”

Keeping promises
While some retailers are still trying to introduce mobile, others have moved on to offering Wi-Fi to deepen the in-store experience.

“Guest Wi-Fi is about more than making network access available,” Motorola Solutions states in its “6 Strategies to Ensure your Wireless Network Delivers Enhanced Experiences” report. “Ubiquitous customer connectivity also empowers you to make maximum use of the growing number of creative, efficient applications and technologies wireless makes available. These include locationing, real-time couponing, mobile check-out, social media interaction and much more.

“Equally important,” the report continues, “by inviting customers onto your network through your own captive portal and private smartphone application, you invite them to become more active, more loyal and more connected members of your community.”

Motorola estimates that by 2017, 56 percent of retailers will provide guest Wi-Fi. At this point, however, “a fairly significant portion of retail stores still don’t have wireless at all,” says Jerry McNerney, senior director of North America enterprise marketing for Motorola Solutions. In addition, even when wireless is available, there may be “significant holes” in coverage, and if a retailer promises reliable access but doesn’t deliver, “a potential positive customer experience instantly turns into a negative one.”

Motorola’s current mobile focus is on “enabling store associates to do their jobs and do them efficiently,” McNerney says. That might mean integrating not only data collection but also analytics, such as providing individual shopping histories, demographics and other customer information into associates’ hands.

Oracle addresses that challenge through a system that works on the iPod touch, but remains “very portable” through website code. “I believe that today’s technology may not be what retailers want to use in a year or so,” Dorf says. “Our application doesn’t rely on a particular operating system underneath, and it self-adjusts to different sizes. It’s very, very flexible.”

SAP offers an mPOS that can run on any device and offers all of a cash register’s functionality — with continuity in the design and experience.
“It’s fundamentally different from other mobile POS systems out there,” Haig says. “The focus for the store staff can be less on the technology and learning all that and more on upselling to customers and building new sales skills.”

Differing perceptions
Some stumbling blocks remain. “When you’re buying several items and they need to be bagged and have the security tags removed, if the associate is standing in the middle of the aisle, there’s not a place to do that,” Dorf says. “Some have set up mini-stations, but operationally there are still some things to be worked out.”

In addition, even though mobile devices increasingly accept different methods of payment, some customers still use cash. A shared cash drawer is an option, but raises issues of accountability and possible theft.

Finally, there are cultural shifts that must happen. There’s the idea of placing more trust, power and technology into associates’ hands. There are still questions about security. And there’s the ongoing challenge that customers and retailers don’t perceive mobile — and the need for it — in the same way.

“Inside of the industry, I think retailers and technology providers still think of mobile as a separate website,” says Larry Kavanagh, chief e-commerce strategy officer for Kalio, an integrated on-demand e-commerce solutions provider. “Customers don’t view it that way at all. ... The expectation is that they can interact with any of those channels, and have the retailer recognize them as the same individual. They believe they should be able to give their information once and not have to do it again. If there’s a sale being advertised, or if an e-mail has been pushed out with a special, they believe they should be able to see that in-store.”

Solutions providers report retailers wanting more thought leadership and guidance as the picture continues to change.

“I think retailers are wise enough to know that some things will work well for them, and some won’t,” Haig says. “But the ones that are less risk-averse and willing to give it a shot, they’ll be most successful. They’re investing in people, and re-inventing their business.”

Part of the question for companies is financial. “Some are still stuck in the ROI model, asking, ‘What am I going to get in how many months from doing this?’” he says. “But I think there are often softer benefits that are pretty strategic.”

Aside from bigger basket size and better conversions, what might those benefits be? Customers who feel like they’re being well-attended rather than simply tolerated.

“The pendulum is swinging the other way,” Haig says. “It’s not to say that a customer can’t say, ‘No thanks, I’m fine, just browsing.’ But if a customer really wants the engagement, they can have that engagement now.”