Tablets: Uncovering the Best Strategy for Apparel Retailers

Tablet use has grown in popularity in the retail industry over the past few years, and for good reason. Manufacturers offer more tablet options designed specifically for the retail environment today, and retailers' perceptions of these devices as a beneficial store tool have evolved. They longer view tablets as merely devices that consumers use to shop at home on their couches – but as a meaningful means for store associates and managers to access richer information to improve customer service.

Tablets add value within the four walls of the store by acting as a POS peripheral, a store associate tool and a tool for store managers. Moreover, some retailers are starting to focus on tablets to aid in loss prevention. A number of retailers are dipping a toe in the water by testing tablets in any one of these individual areas. But to truly maximize a mobile strategy, we recommend evaluating how mobile can benefit the store system as a whole and looking at tablets as a way to improve not only transactions, but overall store operations and the shopping experience.

The integrated tablet: POS, data and insights
Mobile POS devices have been slowly but surely making their way into the mainstream. From basic solutions like the Square card reader to integrated mobile POS solutions for large-scale retail chains, retailers of any size now have options for untethering POS. Working with a retail consultant from the get-go can help sort through the myriad options based on a store's particular needs, such as how many mobile POS devices are needed, how and where will they be used, how will they be integrated with existing POS software and what happens if one of the devices somehow leaves the store?

Additionally, retailers need to think about how mobile units are designed to benefit store associates and managers. A store associate helping a guest with checkout can more easily upsell other items with real-time access to inventory lookup. Even out-of-stock items can be purchased on the spot and shipped to the store or the buyer's home from a properly equipped tablet.

For high-end retailers, customizing the experience for shoppers has become even more important. With a tablet in hand, associates can now identify shoppers through loyalty card or other identifiers and make more relevant suggestions based on past purchase history. Instead of just a reactive tool for the purchase, tablets and the critical shopper data accessible through the device can now be used to drive the interaction and sale.

Managers should have access to a different set of tools; business analytics, merchandising, security reports and staffing schedules are just a few of the insights managers need to optimize business operations. Again, knowing which tools are beneficial for managers should be outlined from the beginning of a project – getting the best return on a tablet rollout requires a solid objective and integration plan that takes into account all of the software elements that feed into the tablet interface.

Having separate tablets for POS, associates and managers defeats the purpose of this multi-purpose tool, so plan ahead and create a comprehensive program.

Finally, don't forget about device and data security. Any mobile device has the potential to walk out of a store, so know your options for remote wiping, deactivation and employee policies regarding tablet usage. And consider re-evaluating your wireless network during the planning phase. Securing wireless networks should be addressed prior to device deployments, but if it hasn't been, it should be part of the initial research and pilot phases. Some retailers look to go above and beyond what PCI standards mandate in order to minimize the need for future upgrades. These retailers are getting the most out of what PCI stands for in the industry and reducing the opportunity for data theft.

Tablets for loss prevention
Because tablets and smartphones come with additional features such as texting and cameras – and mobile associates aren't tied to a fixed cash wrap – they can offer additional benefits for loss prevention. Just the simple fact that associates are able to travel through the store with ease has the potential to deter potential shoplifters. But leveraging the device's built-in tools can be an even bigger benefit.

A sales associate witnessing a crime can more subtly text managers or security. They can even use the device to record a crime in progress to the central store recording server without tipping off the perpetrator and without putting themselves in danger. When considering tablets for loss prevention, check with the system integrator to ensure that you're getting the right tablet for the job, and invest in employee training to make sure that employees are handling possible theft situations correctly and safely.

Tablets without the commitment
With the current pace of mobile device advancements, many retailers are hesitant to invest in tablets that may be outdated in as little as six to nine months. Some service providers offer Hardware-as-a-Service (HaaS): a “pay-as-you-use-it” program that allows retailers to use the latest devices without risking loss of investment when it's time to upgrade. Easy usage contracts for devices such as tablets, peripherals, POS hardware and loss prevention/video equipment put the retailer in control when it comes to cost and length of time the devices are used.

For retailers that are too busy (or simply don't want) to wade through the available tablets but want to kick off a mobile program in 2013, some vendors offer a comprehensive site survey, customized recommendations and turn-key project management and implementation. When it's time to upgrade, these vendors provide everything needed to move to the next device: hardware, store-specific custom software, support, warranty, replacement and maintenance. Device installation, de-installation, shipping and taxes are all included in the monthly usage contract.

However you choose to engage with these devices, key to any tablet deployment is up-front planning to design a program that benefits every aspect of store operations and doesn't leave you with simply another set of devices to manage and update.

Brad Fick is president of Direct Source, a provider of hardware, software, installation and integration services for the retail industry.

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