I have written a bit about how the smartphone is a game changer in retail, impacting the way consumers shop in so many new and exciting ways. Mobile brings many benefits to the shopper including the ability to do product research in the aisle of the store, compare prices in real-time, and connect to social media to garner peer recommendations. We are now seeing the advent of other in-store services like product navigation (where is the soap?) that will save shoppers time and improve their overall experience. Retailers are seeing the benefits of bringing the online world into the physical store shopping experience.
However, the mobile device revolution doesn't just impact the consumer. We are starting to see a trend where the major retail chains are arming their employees and store managers with the very same technology that the consumer is using. There have been several high profile announcements where these retailers are engaging their store associates with mobile technology in order to dramatically change the way they do business.
In probably the largest announced roll-out, Lowe's plans to deploy 42,000 iOS based devices in their 1,700+ stores. The initial application for these devices is to allow store employees the ability to access the lowes.com site, check product inventory, and access "how-to" videos. At some point these devices will also be capable of conducting POS transactions so associates can close a deal in the aisle of the store. Home Depot made a similar announcement earlier in the year where they plan to spend $60 million on getting mobile devices into the hands of theirs store associates. In this case, they selected more hardened devices from Motorola as their device of choice. In both cases, these retailers decided it was time to get more online data in the hands of their sales people in order to bring information closer to the customer.
In the apparel industry, Nordstrom announced that they were bringing 5,000 iOS devices into their stores to be used as mobile point of sale terminals. Nordstrom, a longtime leader in customer service, intends to speed up the check-out experience and once again provide more information to customers through their trusted sales associates.
Looking deeper into what mobile POS brings, there is also the potential for it to free up more selling real estate while dramatically reducing infrastructure costs for the store. Retailers measure their performance on "sales per square foot" and in most large department stores, precious real estate is taken up by the cash wrap. By enabling mobile POS, Nordstrom and other retailers may be able to do away entirely with their check out aisle. Imagine the cost savings if the retailer didn't have to pay for these expensive check out stands (tens of thousands of dollars each, 5-10 per store, hundreds of stores...) and that area could be used to house more items for sale. Decreasing store costs while increasing sales per square foot is enabled by implementing in-store mobile technology.
Today the promise of better customer engagement, easier check out, decreased store costs, and increasing revenues are major drivers for these mobile device roll-outs. However, there are many details that will need to get sorted out before the true value of these programs can be realized:
- How do you prevent theft if there is no formal check-out location?
- Where do the electronic tags get removed and where do items get bagged?
- What about cash transactions?
- Is there enough WiFi coverage to ensure constant connectivity?
I am sure there will be many more logistical issues that will need to be resolved, but the upside is so large that I expect mobile technology in the hands of every store employee to become main stream in the next few years. Retailers will adapt traditional processes, like customer check out, because the payback is so huge.