As wireless technology advances, many retailers are trying to use a variety of applications to reshape the traditional shopping experience at store level. The most visible initiatives that retailers are deploying include portable point-of-sale systems and wireless in-store communications.
With new applications, however, come new obstacles. Wireless technology presents issues such as incompatibility with existing store systems and a high cost factor.
Retailers including Kmart, Troy, Mich.; American Stores Co., Salt Lake City; and Fred Meyer Inc., Portland, Ore., are focusing on in-store communications applications of wireless technology. Managers typically carry wireless units, similar to a cellular telephone, enabling them to answer calls from anywhere on the selling floor. The technology also helps to reduce continuous noise from overhead paging.
Such systems can be integrated with the retailer's telephone system, enabling outside calls to be routed to a wireless phone, via radio transmitters placed throughout the supermarket.
Fred Meyer is rolling out wireless-telephone technology to all its larger stores, according to Frank Steinkellner, assistant vice president of network services at the retailer. He believes more advanced wireless units, transmitting a wider range of data than voice communications, could be useful in supermarkets.
"[Wireless] is a technology that has a very solid place in the future, whether it's voice or data technology or handheld devices that can have access to the Internet," said Steinkellner.
Portable units with small monitors could be connected via radio frequency to the store's Internet connection or its own internal network, according to a source familiar with the situation.
While Fred Meyer is not planning to implement this level of technology in the near future, Steinkellner believes such portable connections "could be helpful, particularly in our stores that are 160,000 to 180,000 square feet, where an associate can be anywhere in the store and have such access."
Bringing wireless technology together with front-end POS systems has been another major goal for retailers hoping to enhance, and in some cases speed up, the checkout experience. Several retailers use wireless technology for portable registers that can be placed in any part of the store requiring additional service.
For example, A&P, Montvale, N.J., uses its wireless POS application to benefit customers who may not be shopping in the main body of the supermarket, according to Frank Urbaniak, vice president of retail support systems at A&P. "We use them for everything from lawn and tent sales to Christmas tree sales," said Urbaniak.
A&P began experimenting with wireless POS almost two years ago and currently uses portable registers in nearly 30 stores, according to Urbaniak.
Similarly, Bristol Farms, El Segundo, Calif., is using wireless technology to boost its POS presence in its Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., store. The wireless application, which Bristol has been using for two years, enables the retailer to move the units outdoors to increase ease of checkout during summer sales.
Another area where wireless is enhancing store operations is in scale management. For Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, which has such a system in one store, "it gives us the ability to move scales without connecting communication lines, and we still get just as fast a transfer rate [as a wired, stationary scale system]," said Jack Gridley, director of meat and seafood at Dorothy Lane.
Dorothy Lane uses seven wireless scales in its meat and seafood departments, in addition to units in its produce department for customer use, according to Gridley. The retailer plans to install the wireless scale technology in its second store by the end of April, according to Gridley.
Wireless technology does come with its share of obstacles, however. A&P's Urbaniak said one of the main problems he sees is that the wireless technology will not be compatible with the retailer's planned upgrade of its POS system.
A few retailers are looking toward new uses for the next generation of wireless technologies. Dorothy Lane's Gridley believes wireless store-to-store networks could replace phone-line communications within a limited geographic area. The retailer is exploring how to set up its own store-to-store wireless communication system.
"You could send your POS, credit and debit transactions, price changes, e-mail, Internet and scale management data -- all of it could be sent through a wireless, encrypted communication," Gridley said.
Such a wireless communication system uses high-frequency radio waves to transmit encrypted information and has a limited range, according to Gridley. Dorothy Lane operates two stores in the Dayton area, located approximately three miles apart from each other.
Gridley said a decision on whether Dorothy Lane will explore the new technology further should come "within the next three months."