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Making a Mark

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Since AT&T opened its flagship store on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile last fall, the biggest surprise hasn’t necessarily been what visitors find on the “experience platform” and in the various lifestyle boutiques. It’s more what they don’t.

The 10,000-sq.-ft. store has no counters or cash wraps — the point of sale and service system is entirely on tablets. The focus is on “interaction” rather than “transaction.” And, according to AT&T, other retailers keep dropping by to see how it’s all being done.

“The thing that most people are coming to us and asking about is how we’re doing it,” says Paul Roth, president of retail sales and service at AT&T. “We are a wireless company first and foremost, and the mobile point of sale system isn’t just a technology we put on a tablet. … we’re actually experts in tablets. We sell more tablets than anybody in the U.S. If you want to use a tablet in your business and you want to understand how to put a mobile point of sale system onto a tablet for your retail store, then AT&T is probably the best partner that you can pick.”

The store — in development for years, Roth says — employs more than 100 55-in. high-definition digital screens. An “app bar” helps customers find the right offerings and an 18-ft.-high “connect wall” displays interactive content and product information.

Aside from featuring the products themselves, the concept behind the store was to set a tone and establish how AT&T wants its customers to feel, he says. Many of the elements — including the lack of cash wrap counters — are being rolled out to the company’s 2,000-plus stores.

“The architects were sitting there tapping their pencils, impatiently wanting to start drawing,” Roth says. “But we actually started with, ‘Give me feelings. Give me emotion. How do we want all of this to work?’ And then we started to wrap the design around that…. This was a radical departure from the way we have built stores in the past, the way I think most retailers have built stores.”

‘The best of both worlds’
In the same way, Roth says, AT&T’s mobile offerings can help retailers better convey the feelings, emotions and experiences they wish to deliver — and the ones customers increasingly expect.

“There’s this ongoing debate about whether stores will be replaced by the web,” he says. “My view is no — absolute no. They will be integrated. … If a retailer doesn’t integrate the web — and the digital nature of it — with the store, they’re going to have a really difficult time in the future.

“We believe what the customer wants is the best of both worlds: the full, rich, multimedia experience that goes with the digital world, and the personal service, convenience and instant gratification that comes with the physical world. If the stores of the future can take the best of those two worlds and put them together in an integrated, meaningful way, then I think retail exists forever.”

Another surprising thing about the Chicago store, Roth says, is that despite the other retail offerings on the street, the average customer spends an hour inside.

“Being on Michigan Avenue is all about shopping as an event,” he says, “but they have fun in here. There’s something really cool about it.” It’s beautifully simple, he says, as well as environmentally friendly, with LEED Platinum certification. But the atmosphere also lends itself to lifestyle merchandising, in which the items offered are matched to consumer living patterns.

“It allows customers to feel very well educated,” Roth says. “They get the entire ecosystem. They see their problem solved or their lifestyle realized, and they see a great opportunity for them to put these pieces together themselves. And they understand it. They feel very informed about it, which makes them feel empowered.”

The employees have a hand in that: They’re trained to greet each customer with an “I can help you” and a smile, and the use of tablets means they can stand next to visitors rather than across from them with a counter in between. Surveys have shown that with the use of tablets, employees are consistently rated friendlier and more knowledgeable and customers have been more willing to recommend a visit.

When other retailers are the ones visiting, Roth says, it’s often a chief operating or marketing officer who wants to talk about merchandising and the flow of the store, or a chief information officer discussing the reliability of the tablets, backup systems, Wi-Fi and the back-end architecture.

Advances in technology
Almost all components of the store were well tested before they arrived on Michigan Avenue, Roth says. But there is one thing that was tried in the store first: the use of biometrics instead of traditional tokens or passwords for access to systems and cash drawers.

“The store is so pretty, there are places we didn’t want to have to put anything other than a small, doorbell-sized device,” he says. Each employee’s fingerprints are in the system, and permissions are assigned to each one -— who does and doesn’t have access to the cash drawer, for example.

It’s just another way the company is looking ahead, Roth says, and working to deliver the desired experience, one customer or retailer at a time. AT&T has long had a strong presence in delivering retail industry solutions. But with continuing advances in mobile technology, the company is aimed at retail partners who are more interested in becoming industry leaders than just looking to follow, says Jim Huempfner, vice president of the industry solutions practice at AT&T.

“We look for retailers who want to make a mark in the industry and really embrace technology, not just dabble in it,” Huempfner says. “We want our retailers to realize the full benefits of the transformation we can provide. The real key is for AT&T to listen to our retailers’ needs, like any good counselor, translate those needs and use our experience to bring that to reality. We listen, ask tough questions, push and help retailers realize their full potential.”