Store managers always struggle with getting back-office work done so they can be out on the sales floor with customers and employees. Yet what if they could take the back-office with them out into the store?
That is becoming possible, thanks to multifunctional wireless handhelds that can display an array of key performance indicators (KPIs) in a "dashboard" format akin to the traditional dashboard found in a car or airplane. Managers simply carry the devices with them on their appointed rounds.
Retailers have long used handhelds for inventory and pricing functions, but dashboard technology is relatively new. Still, it's getting a lot of attention from such vendors as IBM, Microsoft and Trax Retail Solutions, among others. One of the testing grounds for new retail technology, Metro Group's Future Store -- an Extra supermarket in Rheinberg, Germany -- is also giving it a go.
Future Store employees are using a wireless personal digital assistant to perform multiple tasks on the store floor. According to the retailer, the device is used to access merchandise management systems, check stock levels, change messages on electronic advertising displays, send and receive e-mail, and manage schedules.
The Future Store's dashboard system leverages a variety of handheld devices, including HP's iPaq 5450 and iPaq 3970, as well as Symbol's PDT-8100.
Careful review of a device's features -- and how well it will support different applications -- is important, especially when a retailer plans on using an existing device.
"Sometimes the screen size is too small, and devices are DOS-based and not very graphical," said Rob Garf, retail research analyst, AMR Research, Boston. "A handheld needs to have enough real estate so that you can navigate it and read it easily. At the same time, retailers must remember that the store manager needs to be able to walk around the store with the device on their belt buckle."
Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., found that the initial wireless dashboard device tested at its first Bloom store in nearby Charlotte, a wireless tablet, didn't offer the desired flexibility.
Initially, Susie McIntosh-Hinson, concept creator, technology, Bloom, reported that the notebook device offered "freedom from the back office" by keeping store managers in touch with sales information, labor scheduling and e-mail functionality.
"In the end, Bloom chose a PDA-type device for managers instead," said Jeff Lowrance, Food Lion spokesman. "Our Bloom team simply decided that a PDA device met the store managers' needs best. We have, and are testing, multiple PDAs."
Lowrance acknowledged there are differences in the applications supported by the notebooks and the PDAs, but he did not elaborate.
Wholesale distributor Nash Finch, South Minneapolis, Minn., also plans to deploy multi-functional devices.
After completing a successful pilot of "Dolphin" handheld devices in 40 stores, Nash Finch is rolling out the units, provided by Hand Held Products, Skaneateles Falls, N.Y., to 1,600 stores. Each of the stores will use about two devices.
Initially, the devices will be used for order processing and may eventually support customer-facing applications on the store floor, according to Sarah Miller, vice president of business process in retail service, Nash Finch.
"The pilot went really well," she said. "We compared the new [handhelds] to the old ones that we were using [for order processing]. We went down the aisles with both units and took orders. The old units failed four times," while the new units were accurate.
Miller explained that the new device is similar to a PDA and, unlike the previously used devices, runs an operating system called Microsoft Mobile.
"With the new device, we're able to build applications to run on the platform," Miller explained. "It gives us a lot of flexibility to build new applications to support front-of-the-store tasks. One idea that we have is to use the device as a line buster tool to scan groceries in the checkout lane."
Nash Finch also plans to roll out other inventory management and receiving functions on the device.
"Store managers will have greater access to information that will help them better manage the stores," said Miller.
Like Nash Finch, other re-tailers are looking at using dashboard-type devices to improve customer service. "We're seeing more investment in in-store technology that puts associates in front of customers while they service them," said Garf. "Handheld devices will not just become dashboard-centric -- they'll give access to product and loyalty data, and even advanced analytics to do [cross selling]."
One example of such service is taking place at Mount Vernon, N.Y.-based PSK Supermarkets, which began using a first-of-its-kind wireless customer-service system in its 13 Foodtown stores in December. It automatically pages a customer-service manager to provide personalized service to top shoppers while they're at the checkout.
The system is maintained by the retailer's loyalty program partner, S&H Greenpoints, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and based on the data that it maintains.
Scanning the loyalty card of a shopper who is among the top 15% of spenders automatically triggers an e-mail that is sent to a pager worn by the customer service manager, according to Noah Katz, vice president at PSK Supermarkets.
Introducing dashboards to stores requires careful planning, noted observers.
"There is an overall process engineering that must take place" when mobile access to real-time information is granted, explained Garf of AMR Research. "Store managers must get used to the fact that they'll have this tool available to them. Also, retailers have to trust that [managers] are reacting appropriately to the information."
Larry Miller, president and founder, Trax Retail Solutions, Scottsdale, Ariz., pointed out that it's possible for mobile dashboards to give managers too much of a good thing. "We don't want managers to have to be saddled to a desktop anymore. But at the same time, we don't want to flood them with data, alerts and e-mail just because we can," he said.
Trax hopes to push the "right amount" of information to store managers via its Trax SmartPad, which can handle store audit applications for slip-and-fall safety, sanitation, perishables and advertised items. "It puts the store manager into the automated alert world with tasks that were once done manually," said Miller.