Up in Arms

A virulent combination of heightened competition and a need to maximize human resources without adding personnel is spurring retailers to equip employees with mobile tools aimed at bolstering their productivity.
According to Gartner, the overall market for enterprise mobile systems will hit $7.6 billion in 2008. Meanwhile, 83 percent of respondents to the Mobility in Retail Survey, conducted by Martec International in conjunction with Microsoft, said they are either using or planning to implement mobile systems in-store.

Putting such devices as portable scanners, PDAs, VoIP-enabled phones or a combination thereof into the hands of store managers and associates enhances productivity by allowing information to be accessed and acted upon directly from the store floor. Employees also can respond immediately to shoppers' inquiries and requests, improving customer service, and consequently, the bottom line.

Untethering Managers
American Furniture Warehouse, in Englewood, Colorado, utilizes an application built around Motorola (previously Symbol Technologies) MC50 Enterprise Digital Assistant hand-held computers to improve the accessibility, efficiency and effectiveness of managers in its 10 stores. Chris Fischer, IT manager, says this is essential given store sizes, which range from 100,000 to 635,000 square feet, and the scope of managers' responsibilities. Each manager supervises 60 to 70 salespeople.

Before the technology was implemented, managers spent nearly all of their time at their desks, making it difficult to ensure that customers and staff alike received the assistance they needed.

Desktop computers were required to access the company intranet for inventory status and prices, as well as to tap into other applications and answer e-mail. Telephone calls could be placed and returned only from the back room.

By contrast, the MC50s integrate voice and data, allowing managers to perform a wide variety of functions from the sales floor, Fischer explains. These include tapping into Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel to see work schedules and delivery manifests; logging into the corporate intranet to view inventory databases, payroll information and forms; communicating with associates and customers via e-mail and scanning shelf tags to check or change prices. Nortel's Business Communication Manager switch extends desk phone functionality to the mobile devices, permitting telephone calls to be placed and received remotely over the company's wireless LAN.

With the system in place, managers spend 100 percent of their time on the sales floor, rather than as little as 5 percent, as in the past. "Our managers are a lot more productive, and because they can provide sales staff better information, the same number of employees can handle more customers, yet deliver better service," Fischer says. "In the cut-throat furniture industry, it's mobility that gives us a real competitive advantage."

Needed: WLAN Functionality
Robust voice over WLAN (VoWLAN) functionality and 802.11b wireless networking are among the most significant keys to leveraging mobile productivity system investments. The former maximizes voice communications of all types through PBX connectivity and push-to-talk, peer-to-peer, one-to-one and one-to-many protocols; the latter, the "anytime, anywhere" voice and data exchange required to support manager/associate efficiency.

Tight integration of mobile applications with enterprise systems is equally essential in this regard. Only "an integrated store operations architecture enables retailers to better control annual labor expenditures of $250 billion and provide the highest level of customer service," assert analysts Robert Garf and Jennifer Arigoni in the AMR Research report "Drive Retail Employee Productivity Through New Web-Based Workforce Management Applications."

St. Louis-based Dierberg's grocery chain accomplishes this task via the Microsoft Windows Mobile O/S and .NET Compact Framework. Associates use Intermec 720 hand-held computers to access enterprise systems not only when recording shelf counts and inventory transfers, but also to offer assistance to shoppers. For example, if a shopper needs help locating a particular item, an associate can employ the tool to see if the item is in stock in the back room and where it is located, check the time of the next scheduled delivery, request an inter-store transfer or place a special order.

"The system enables us to fully exploit our infrastructure," says Robert Sanabria, director of IT. "Now, once a transaction is done on the handheld, it's done. You don't have to do anything with it again. There has been a significant productivity gain." The retailer has implemented Cisco's Real-Time Retail suite, which integrates data from the handhelds, point-of-sale systems and other in-store applications. Wide area network connections link 22 store locations with headquarters and keep applications updated with the latest information in real time.

"The system eliminates a lot of variables and lets us act on real information," Sanabria asserts. "We are much more accurate now, and we are quicker to respond because we have so much information literally at our fingertips."

Sales Floor Checkout
Enhancing the productivity of sales associates continues to drive retailers to seek mobile solutions. Giving sales floor staff expanded abilities is a fast track to measurable ROI. Retail giant Staples is expecting to see a return-on-investment in two years after deploying a mobile system from Intel, Microsoft and Fujitsu, says George Lamson, director of application development. "Without a doubt, we are helping to retain more customers and impacting the bottom line through these technology investments," Lamson says. The company has leveraged wireless Fujitsu iPAD devices, powered by Intel XScale technology and Microsoft Windows CE .NET, in order to provide its sales floor associates with expanded POS capabilities.

The iPADs include a built-in scanner for reading inventory data and a magnetic stripe reader enabling associates to engage in line-busting by checking customers out on the sales floor. "Store associates get up-to-the-minute access to corporate data, without having to find a kiosk or leave the floor," Lamson adds. "If an item isn't on the shelf, they're guided through standard procedures that promote consistency across our stores and give the customer an easier shopping experience." Associates also use the iPADs to scan out-of-stock items each morning, triggering replenishment orders.

Another retailer engaging in line-busting is UK-based WHSmith. "Our market and customer research has shown that in the past shoppers have perceived queuing as a barrier to either coming into the store in the first place or to buying anything once they are there. It is one of our strategic goals to change this perception," says Mark Bramwell, business systems manager. The books and media retailer is using Casio IT-700 series Pocket PC terminals at 25 of its busiest stores. The Pocket PCs include a wireless bar code scanner, color touch screen and numeric keypad. A portable 2D code receipt printer from Zebra Technologies is attached, and worn on the sales associate's belt.
HSSmith associates scan the products in customers' baskets while they wait in line. Customers are handed a printed transaction receipt which they present at the cash register. According to Bramwell transaction times have been cut by 50 percent. "Feedback so far from staff and customers has been enthusiastic and we are reducing customers' wait time at the EPOS terminal by about half," he says.
Sales associates, in fact, are some of the most enthusiastic fans of the new hand-held technology. Many sales associates have begun testing the terminals for other uses. Some are already using the Pocket PCs for price checks and product data enquiries. Future plans include using the handhelds to check and monitor stock levels.

Taking Stock of Success
Many other retailers are taking advantage of the increased productivity offered by mobile tools. In the United Kingdom, Claire's Accessories added Opticon PHL1700 hand-held terminals to its arsenal of store operation tools. The 350-store retailer is using the terminals to perform stock counts.
Prior to implementing the PHL1700s stock counts were done by external auditors under the watch of the branch manager. The accuracy of such stock counts was often erroneous, and fixing the problem was complicated, as the third party always had to be contacted to clarify discrepancies. In order to increase stock accuracy, Claire's headquarters established a goal to create an in-house stock-taking system.

As part of the new system one district manager is in charge of ten stores. Each district shares 10
hand-held terminals, two download/recharge cradles and an internal power supply. Since mplementing the system, the time it takes to perform a stock count has been reduced and accuracy has increased. In addition, the retailer maintains tighter control as any anomalies can be quickly, and internally, addressed.

In Florida, Sedano's supermarket chain is using Datalogic (formerly PSC) Falcon 325 handheld computers, in conjunction with the Openfield ISIS system and Cisco wireless infrastructure, to optimize its price and inventory management. Store employees scan items on the shelf with the Falcon 325s for accurate inventory counts and to check for price changes. "The results of this implementation are exactly what we had hoped for," says Alfredo Guerra, vice president of information technology. "Our employees prefer the system, and return-on-investment (ROI) has exceeded our goals."

Specific results the retailer has recorded include: Response time for each inventory count transaction
decreased from two or more seconds to less than a second; time creating shelf tags was cut in half; inventory auditing times were reduced by more than 25 percent; and inventory level accuracy improved due to a lower error rate and faster connectivity. "We save seconds on each transaction, and in our business time is money," Guerra says.

Tracking Attendance
In addition to their ability to optimize inventory control, mobile terminals also can be used to increase efficiency in human resource operations. Specialty retailer, CSK Auto is using 4600 2D imagers from Hand Held Products to improve tracking of employee time and attendance processes. Using the 4600 2D imagers, with Adaptus Imaging Technology, enables the retailer to digitally capture images of time and attendance documents and store them electronically. Paperwork processing times and related administrative tasks have been significantly reduced since deploying more than 1,000 imagers.

CSK Auto initially ran a pilot program at one store location, and then district wide, before rolling out the technology to its 1,263 stores across 22 states. Store employees can now scan their timesheets and then upload the electronic images to the corporate server themselves, rather than having to mail them. Timesheets are received by corporate headquarters in a fraction of the time it used to take. Additionally, retrieval of time-sheets in the event of a dispute is much easier.

Mobility In The Back
For large retailers with distribution centers and warehouses, mobile tools also can improve efficiencies in the supply chain. Department store chain, Lord & Taylor operates several distribution centers and relies on UCC-128 bar codes affixed to packages for routing. When these critical bar codes are damaged or scratched they often can't be read by the automated inventory system. In order to rout the packages to the correct store location, a new bar code must be affixed to the package. Mobile printers allow workers to print out new bar codes on the spot, rather than walking to a stationary printer and then back to the package.

Lord & Taylor uses the Monarch Pathfinder Ultra Platinum printer from Paxar. The printers reproduce the necessary bar codes, which are applied directly to the package. "The Ultra Platinum printers are working very well for us," says Brian Noler, technology support supervisor. "They are user-friendly, easy to operate, remarkably fast and they rarely break down."

Looking Forward
In the near future, retailers can expect increased integration of other applications, such as e-learning, into mobile productivity systems. Armed with these tools, store associates will be able to access educational materials from corporate intranets and other sources to engage in on-the-job training when not waiting on customers or performing other assigned tasks, thereby making better use of their downtime. Other promising mobile systems intended to heighten productivity include those that allow managers to remotely monitor cashiers' activities on their own hand-held units, as well as to authorize returns, approve checks and handle overrides from anywhere in the store.
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