Written by David Adams
Small is often beautiful in technology, but not always useful. There’s a line on the first page of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written about 30 years ago, about human beings being so primitive that “they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” This was a case of funny because it’s true: in the absence of personal computers and mobile phones, a surprisingly large number of us got our gadget kicks from ever more complicated digital watches, covered with dozens of tiny, squishy rubber buttons. User interfaces have improved a bit since then, but we are still seduced, in both our professional and personal lives, by tiny technologies. Retail Systems has been reporting on various ways that PDAs and other devices can be used for stocktaking, arming sales assistants with product information or queue busting, for years. But perhaps the latest generation of powerful mobile technologies, including those seductive little magic boxes produced by Apple and its imitators as well as the tools designed specifically for retail, could help the hype we first heard about mobile EPoS 10 or more years ago become reality at last.
So far, mobile EPoS has proved easier to deploy in the US than in Europe, because there’s no need to cater, for instance, to chip and PIN requirements Stateside. Home Depot has enjoyed some success there with First Phone, a customised Motorola smartphone and communications device. There have been hardware and software glitches since its launch last year, but the units were used in almost a million mobile EPoS transactions in the final quarter of 2010, according to figures released by the retailer this February.
Another barrier to adoption over here is the fact that it can be tricky to integrate mobilise EPoS into the existing PoS infrastructure, an exercise which may entail bringing in third party companies to customise and integrate software and hardware. Technical problems can also be compounded by political issues associated with existing PoS vendors.
But impressive technologies are emerging, like J2’s Wave touchscreen handheld unit. “Retailers don’t want something big and bulky or anything too much like a mobile phone, which is very stealable,” says Paul Hudson, business development manager at J2 Retail. “The Wave has a battery life of up to 10 hours and it’s droppable from about 1.5m.” A barcode scanner can be attached, but Hudson says at present the Wave is mostly used for back office tasks or to help staff provide product information.
Richard Willis, retail solution director at Torex, says it is the drive to improve customer service, rather than to take payment on the move, that remains the most important motive for his retail sector clients to consider mobile technologies in-store. In environments where a degree of personal service is desirable, as in mobile phone stores, devices smaller than the iPad, such as an iPhone, iPod Touch or similar, can form an effective mobile EPoS if physically attached to a chip and PIN unit. “Staff can go through different options for goods on the touchscreen with the shopper, then flip it over to use chip and PIN to take payment,” suggests Matt Rowsell, chief commercial officer at Streamline, which is responsible for WorldPay’s face-to-face transactions. “I think this could come into its own with electronic goods, or luxury brands. In those areas you can remove the cash register to free up space.”
“It’s great in environments where maybe the shopper is buying one or two big ticket items and there isn’t much cash changing hands,” agrees Torex’s Willis. “There I think mobile PoS will take over from the traditional PoS. You could imagine that being appropriate somewhere like a jewellers, where you don’t have a high number of transactions.”
“In bringing mobile PoS into fashion you’ve got to think about security issues, about how you wrap and bag, take off security tags,” he continues. “But what we’re looking to do in there is to provide customer service by arming staff with devices to check stock, check customer orders if they’re coming in to collect. We’ll definitely see the service shopping model in the high-tech space and we’re looking to bring the same experience to one of our high end fashion clients too.” Torex is currently working with a retailer on a pilot.
Ingenico’s iSMP device turns an iPod Touch or iPhone into a chip and PIN solution and incorporates a barcode scanner. “We’ve seen a lot of interest, especially from high end retailers,” says Patrick Juan, director of solutions at Ingenico Northern Europe. “It’s a new concept and we’re still going through the certification process, but there will be pilots this year.”
It is beginning to look as if some combination of product information and payment functions may be the most likely route to success with mobile EPoS, rather than queue busting. “WHSmith used (queue busting mobile EPoS) in a couple of stores and proved that they could increase sales,” says Willis. “But it was a significant drain on staff resources: you needed a couple of members of staff geared up like Inspector Gadget with scanning equipment. Then you have the question of where do you start busting the queue? Are you discriminating against people paying by cash? A lot of people talk about it, but I’ve not yet seen a good implementation. It’s faster throughput at the PoS that is the key issue.”
Finally, there is the other means by which a retailer might build a mobile EPoS solution: harnessing consumers’ own mobile devices. The rise of the smartphone has added urgency to the drive to make e-commerce sites mobile friendly, but that can create new problems, warns Phil Parry, group technical director at DigiPoS: “It’s allowing the e-commerce solution to compete against the store proposition.” MobileShopper, a transactional solution launched by DigiPoS in December 2010, tackles this problem by blending the in-store solution with a retailer’s online sales channel. It is available as an iPhone app, with Android and BlackBerry versions coming soon.
“What we’re doing is to put, in parallel with the retailer’s current solution, a cloud-based mobile server system where we keep a complete data copy of the store system,” Parry explains. “So if you’re in town shopping and you turn on the retailer’s app, it will guide you to the store with a Google Map. If the stock is in-store you can choose to pay at the till or with a preregistered credit card, or another payment method like PayPal, using your phone. You can then walk up to a VIP desk where you show staff a secure receipt generated on the mobile. They then verify that receipt, de-tag and bag and away you go.” The company is in talks with a number of major retailers regarding the solution and anticipates a pilot in the first half of 2011. Parry also envisages the solution generating revenue for the retailer through ‘switch’ selling, with manufacturers paying to have a message sent to the consumer just before they buy their goods that incentivises them to switch to that manufacturer’s product.
The traditional approach
Mobile EPoS might have much to recommend it, but it does seem that although the technology is continuing to improve, rumours of the death of the fixed PoS are premature. “I’m all in favour of mobile selling or consultative devices in the right place,” says Ian Royall, managing director at Futura, which has helped implement successful mobile EPoS in locations including the souvenir store at the London Eye. “But I cannot see traditional PoS going away for a very long time. (Retailers) are interested in mobile EPoS, but no-one’s rushing in.” Others are more bullish, however. Torex’s Willis believes it will prove valuable no matter how often payment is taken, because of the way it provides quick and easy access to product information. “Clearly, in places like grocery and convenience the traditional PoS will stay,” he says. “Business processes and cash payment will keep the fixed PoS alive in mainstream retail. But the mobile device will become the most prevalent device in the store in a number of sectors, like electronics; and you’ll see it used more often in fashion.”