The Mobile Frustration

Mobile devices hold a lot of promise for retailers, but they need to negotiate such issues as the high costs and employee use.

One of the fastest growing segments of retail technology today is clearly mobile, whether it's in the hands of consumers accessing the Web or using 2-D barcodes on ads or in the hands of employees changing prices on the shelf or doing inventory or even processing customer purchases while they stand in line.

But there is a huge IT frustration with those mobile devices when it comes to retail employees. It's not the fact that most new retail tech capabilities are mobile and experimental, which just begs the data breach Gods to punish managers. That's more infuriating than frustrating.

No, the mobile frustration is a combination of two things. First, there's the high cost of those mobile units coupled with the fact that they need to be in the hands of a lot of employees for productivity benefits to be really felt.

Secondly, there's the reality that a lot of the new mobile devices (especially the Apple iPhone) have plenty of memory, storage and a highly customizable interface that could lend itself to a ton of retail mobile apps. Add to that mix the growing truth that the vast majority of most retail employees come to work already packing some kind of cell phone and, soon, most likely a smart phone.

So this should be a match made in heaven, n'est pas? Au contraire. A wide range of work rules prohibit management from letting employees use their own cell phones at work for retail business.

Some managers fear federal OSHA rules that might interpret such usage of employee-owned phones as a bad thing. What if there are 140 employees and 10 don't have smart phones? Do the other employees get ahead because they can be more productive?

What if an employee tries to do some work on the phone when the employee is at home? Is the retailer required to pay for those hours? Does overtime come into play? Some retailers have designed mobile devices to be Wi-Fi-only specifically so that they can prevent employees from using them outside of work.

That said, the frustration is palpable. It's possible that every employee might want to use their phones to talk with other employees and to be productive and that management would have much to gain. Alas, this is one piece of productivity that simply won't connect.

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesn't plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at

To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.

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