Retail therapy

In an economic climate where retailers can all too easily find themselves on life support, excellent customer service is more vital than ever. And mobile PoS may form part of the cure, says Hannah Prevett.

The world of retail is all about instant gratification - if customers can't get what they want they will go elsewhere. And in today's technology-enabled world, where consumers can purchase everything they need at a click of a mouse, this has never rung truer. However, often the e-commerce offer falls down in one area: customer service. And this is where High Street retailers still have the opportunity to triumph over their pure play competitors.

A functional electronic till system is something most customers take for granted. But in today's highly competitive retailing world, where the consumer is demanding more, this may no longer be enough to give them the edge over their internet competitors. Moreover, as retailers increasingly demand a more contemporary, convenient system, mobile PoS could deliver the answer.
Undoubtedly, it offers significant advantages over traditional fixed till points.

"With a fixed PoS, retailers and staff are limited to serving customers who come to them," explains Cameron Olsen, VP of business development at Smart Technology Solutions, a payments software provider. "However, with an in-store mobile PoS, employees can effectively become roaming salesmen, approaching customers and providing advice on products and securing the sale on the spot."
We only need to look at DIY chain B&Q for an example of how a mobile network can work in practice. Customer service was no doubt front of mind when the retailer implemented its 'service squads' who roam its vast stores armed with handheld computers connected to the corporate network over a wireless local area network (LAN) to answer queries from customers. Staff even carry printers so they can make up a bill of materials for customers.

Like many transformational - and often new - technologies, mobile PoS has overpromised and, consequently, often under delivered. High Street stalwart Woolworths was one of the first retailers to implement a fully transactional mobile PoS system back in 2003. The rationale was that it would reduce queuing times in stores, thus improving conversion rates. And we all know what happened
to Woolies.

That said, the benefits of a mobile payment processing system can not be ignored. Exploited to its full potential, it can offer far more than just reduced queuing times; there is more to improving the in-store experience than just getting customers out of the shop more quickly. For many retailers, the real value is in the flexibility a mobile payment transaction system affords. "It is an attractive technology because it helps us to deal with unexpected increases in customer traffic without the need to implement costly, temporary checkouts," says Lawrence Freeman, development manager at The Co-operative Group.

Prior to implementing the technology, if the Co-op experienced a spike in sales, during the important Christmas trading period, for example, it would need to draft in additional checkouts to cope with increased customer traffic. "This would be costly both in terms of the physical installation costs and upgrading the software on the checkouts to ensure it was up-to-date," explains Freeman. "However, mobile PoS allows us to deal with increased levels of customer traffic, without the need to install costly checkout furniture and provides us with a good pressure valve for certain times of the year."

Similarly, WHSmith was keen to update its systems at its outlet in the new state-of-the-art Heathrow Terminal 5. As a result, it implemented a BT Expedite wi-fi solution which included a hand-held computer for staff, allowing them to take payments and customer queries on the go. They can take their handheld
devices out to customers and process cash and card transactions in real-time on the retail floor, even providing a receipt using a small printer attached to their belts. Consequently, WHSmith can serve its customers faster and more efficiently.

The retailer uses its new Bluetooth networks in other ways too. When it implemented the network - the first roaming Bluetooth implementation in retail - it discovered its staff were now able to carry out tasks such as an item price enquiry or product placement. It also helped with inventory - employees were now able to log delivery of goods via the new network as well as scanning depleted shelf positions for replenishment.


This is not to say that mobile PoS is without its problems. "The practicality issue is related to basket size," says Freeman. "As soon as you move beyond a small basket size it becomes awkward for someone to check and pack shopping efficiently as staff don't have access to plastic bags, receipt printers or a counter to view the items," he pragmatically points out.

But even if an end-to-end system is employed, such as BT Expedite, where smaller issues such as printing customer receipts can be overcome, implementing mobile PoS can have other teething difficulties. Ideally, a system should not mean dramatic changes to existing processes within the retail outlet. What's more, it should be intuitive for staff and require little or no staff training.
The key to implementing a successful solution, it would seem, is often in its application. "The successful retailers are the ones who see PoS as being right for certain environments as complimentary systems, and not always replacement
solutions," says Olsen.

It is also a question of cost. Justifying the capital investment to install the dedicated hardware is just one stumbling block when operating in an increasingly cost-conscious retail environment. At a time when retailers are tightening their belts, the CIO needs to know he is going to see a return on his/her investment. "At the Co-operative we are very business case driven and willing to invest as long as we are certain that there is a solid ROI there," says Freeman.

What's more, the Co-op is in it for the long-term. "In-store hardware development is expected to last at least seven years. We believe we will have ROI well before this period, and mobile PoS is a technology we see playing more of a role in our stores as time goes by."

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