Written by Liz Morrell
2010 was undoubtedly the year of the iPad for consumers as technology enthusiasts embraced the sexy new gadget. But, as well as capturing the imagination of the consumer, such tablet devices have also set retailers’ IT directors hearts racing too. So could 2011 be the year they come into practical use in-store? Liz Morrell reports
he advantages of the iPad are attractive. Previously retailers who have wanted to provide customers with additional product information have had two choices - either allow them limited ability to check and order product via self-service kiosks in the likes of Argos, or the less customer friendly route of standing behind a till looking up the information themselves and alienating the customer in the process. Although the introduction into many stores of Wi-Fi networks has allowed a greater mobility of staff, an assistant lugging around a netbook or laptop wasn’t practical. But the introduction of the iPad, and the multitude of cheaper tablet devices that mimic it, brings a more attractive reality to the retailer - that of staff being able to move away from fixed information points in the store and become truly mobile whilst ensuring the customer feels more in control.
As a result many retailers are seeing the appeal of such tablets for everything from sharing information with customers to assisting with everyday activities such as visual merchandising or staff training instore. Richard Goodall, group sales and marketing director at PCMS, says iPads offer a number of benefits to retailers in-store by improving customer engagement. “Frontline staff can use them to check stock, place reservations in-store or orders via the retailer’s website, check stock at other stores and process transactions. They are also useful for regional management teams, enabling them to be able to access sales reports, stock levels, promotions etc. instantly, without the need to carry bulky and heavy laptops,” he says.
And he believes they are a long-term solution. “Whether it is the iPad or any other form of handheld/tablet solution, I think they are here to stay. The interaction they give with customers is much better than any other type of device. If you take a shoe retailer as an example, staff will not need to go away from the shopfloor to see if there is a size six available - they’ll be able to let the customer know while standing in front of them, and offer them alternative ways to get hold of the item they’re looking for,” says Goodall.
Stephen Mellish, product consultant at 2ergo, agrees and says that for fashion conscious retailers the iPad is particularly attractive. “Despite now being a well-established product, it still provides brand ‘sizzle’ and still has a novelty value for many. They also allow a company to ‘show off’ their products through the use of multi-media; it becomes an in-store advertising platform,” he says.
In fact, in consultative selling iPads particularly come into their own, according to Charleen Benson, director of store consulting services at BT Expedite. “It lends itself well somewhere like Halfords or Mothercare where there is a big range of products and detailed knowledge is required, as well as fashion because of the opportunity for upselling with sales advisors and personal shoppers,” she says.
At Envision Retail, managing director Jason Kemp is working with retailers to use tablet devices for customer satisfaction exit surveys, which not only helps to cut costs but improve the honesty of responses. “Because it’s much quicker and more portable and the customer reads and responds to the question in their own space we can ask shorter questionnaires at the point of experience and the answers we get back are much more honest. Because it’s also being done by store staff, the customer believes the data they give will actually be used as they see it being done by the company itself rather than some faceless organisation or agency,” says Kemp.
The attraction of iPads in-store is huge and as a result a number of retailers - from Aurora to Jack Wills and Ben Sherman - are trialling them. “We will see lots of trials because, while retailers are pushing for it, the IT departments are a bit more cautious,” says Benson. Partly this is because of support issues. Paul Manning from hardware and PoS systems provider EPoS Partners believes wider adoption is being delayed by the amount of quality EPoS software currently available for the iPad due to its limitations with flash etc. “There are other tablet devices that this is easier to do with at the present time that run on a Windows or Android operating system, and we are looking at all of these options, but with innovative ‘next generation’ software packages such as Cervello looking to be available on all formats in the future, this can only be a growing concept and market,” he says.
It’s something John Lewis is also looking into. “We don’t have them anywhere at the moment and there are no concrete plans but we are definitely exploring how they may form part of the multi-channel customer experience in the future and are sure they will play a role,” says Simon Russell, head of multi-channel at John Lewis. At women’s lifestyle clothing and accessories retailer EAST, the company installed a new PCI compliant wireless access to the network from Vodat last autumn and in February completed the roll-out of an iPad to each store for use by its staff. Angus Stewart, head of IT at EAST, says they are being used for a number of things from allowing staff to access the weekly in-house magazine faster than the previous paper version, to creating a community feel between the stores by encouraging its own blog. “Primarily we see it as sitting in the staffroom but because the visual merchandising guidelines are also sent via it, it can be taken on the shopfloor too and our accessories team are currently designing some bags for use on the shopfloor so we can use it to order through as well,” he says.
The savings are huge - no longer having to print and post East documents such as the staff magazine, visual merchandising guidelines or the company’s look book or style bible will save over £11,000 a year, according to EAST. Stewart says the possibilities are endless. “What’s interesting is the amount of stuff we are now putting through the iPads. We know they are going to be a fundamental part of the store infrastructure in a way that you can’t with a traditional computer infrastructure.”
Many critics will cite the issue of cost against introducing iPads but for EAST, which had neither a print or computer network in-store, the iPads are actually a cheaper option than buying, rolling out and supporting a full IT infrastructure in-store. “They are massively cheaper than installing computers and printers and we have cost savings in reduced print and distribution costs,” says Stewart. Indeed, he insists payback time will be 18 months.
There are cheaper versions, such as the Disgo android device at £129. Luke Noonan is purchasing director at consumer electronics distributor, CMS Peripherals, which sells them. “We have had discussions with the likes of Mercedes and BMW to use it on their forecourts,” he says. However, he believes retailers are hesitant to invest currently. “I don’t think people are really ready for it yet. I think the problem is it’s a year too soon and in a time of austerity I don’t think the budgets are there to be investing in this type of technology,” he says.
But Stewart says EAST didn’t find anything else that suited its needs. “Handheld devices are useful for stock control etc but the screen size and resolution of the iPad enables us to use it as a real communication tool,” he says. In addition the device saves on training costs because they are easier to use, he claims. “We have had to train staff on PCs in the past, but the iPad is intuitive.”
Other worries surround the desirability of such products - and therefore the possibility that they may get stolen. Stewart admits it is a concern but says the retailer is protecting both the iPad and staff. “Theft is an obvious worry, however, we have installed apps onto the iPads that enable us to track them via GPRS if they are stolen, we can also remotely lock them and/or send messages to the them (e.g. Police have been alerted that this iPad has been stolen. Please return this iPad to the nearest EAST store...as you are currently on xxxx St, your nearest store is ...) The iPad can be set to automatically lock when it moves out of range of our network and, as data is not held on it (unlike a computer), we do not have the issue of sensitive data leaving the business.”
So will 2011 be the year of the iPad? Stewart believes their use will be limited. “It is unlikely to be for the majority of retailers but I do believe that they will become more useful in-store over the coming years. I am sure their use will continue to grow, but you need a forward thinking company to be taking up the technology this early.”
Kemp agrees. “I think it will be the year of hype but I think they will gradually come in.” However, Phil Gault, client service director at pureplay mobile marketing agency Sponge, has a different view as to why they may be slower to take off. “A lot of retailers haven’t got a coherent externally faced mobile strategy, so whether they get to an internal one is unlikely,” he says.
If that really is the case then retailers need to be looking at whether iPads could be of use within their stores - and fast.