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Retailers hail wireless systems. But which ones should you sell?

Retailers pay attention to anything that reduces the time it takes to give customers what they want, take their money and replenish stock. Wireless communication and data processing systems are getting lots of attention, from consumer-goods manufacturers to distribution fleets to store floors—and even sidewalk sales.

"Wireless is on the forefront of the minds of retailers," agrees Frank Riso, director of marketing for the retail and logistics division of Symbol Technologies. "The old systems required collection of data, a walk to the computer, processing in batches, another trip to correct errors …. Wireless data collection and mobile computing save time and are much more accurate."

The Wireless LAN market is coming of age, says research firm International Data Corp. (IDC). Sales of wireless LAN equipment is projected to hit $3.2 billion in 2005.

In a deal reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars, VF Corp., the $5 billion maker of garments such as Lee and Wrangler jeans, is using Symbol Tech wireless LANs, wrist-mounted computers, and bar-code scanners that fit on a fingertip to tie its 200 manufacturing plants directly to the firms new SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The new system will track the progress of raw materials through the manufacturing process to finished goods, helping VF keep leaner inventories and respond faster to changing fashion whims.

"The Symbol solution optimizes our ERP system by accurately scanning data to be carried over a reliable RF [radio frequency] backbone," says Joe Plaster, VP of e-business technology at VF Corp.

Retailers distribution systems also profit from wireless. Dollar General, a $2 billion chain with 2,860 stores, uses gear from Intermec Technologies Corp. to support the addition of 300 to 400 new stores per year. At Dollar Generals Ardmore, Okla., distribution center, an IBM RS-6000 hosts an Intermec 902-MHz wireless LAN with 28 access points supporting 175 mobile computers and scanners. As goods move from the receiving dock through storage to trucks destined for stores, the wireless devices help the warehouse management system software track every item, tell workers what to pick and where to find it, and schedule deliveries.

"The Ardmore Distribution Centers peak day has been 185,000 cartons on the outbound side, whereas none of the nonautomated centers have the facility to do that," says Tom Murin, director of business systems development at Dollar General. "It [also] provides … the ability to evaluate performance based upon measured work through the scanning."

At the store level, "Communication is their top-of-mind concern," says Richard Olivieri, manager of retail offerings for Motorolas Multiservice Networks Division.

On the sales floor, handheld computers wirelessly connected to inventory systems allow sales reps to answer questions like, "Do you have this in blue, size 8?" without running to the back of the store. Mobile scanners can verify prices on the spot, and can be used in storewide markdown campaigns.

Voice over IP solves external communications problems. A typical chain stores phone bill runs up to $1,000 per month, and two-thirds of that consists of calls to headquarters and other stores. Symbol Techs NetVision device is a wireless IP phone, and more—it also supports text messaging, bar-code scanning and embedded client applications.

Long checkout lines may become hardship stories to tell our grandchildren, thanks to wireless point-of-sale devices like Fujitsu-ICLs TeamPad 500, Intermecs StoreTrader 700 and Symbol Techs SPT1740. Those devices include a magnetic card reader, receipt printer and bar-code scanner, enabling sales reps to take your money on the spot and let you skip directly out the door.

"Wireless is really heating up, because much of the voodoo associated with wireless has dissipated," says Jeff Swann, VP of development at Point of Sales Systems and Services, a Fujitsu partner. "The big leaps included TCP/IP connectivity and an operating system [Windows CE] that enables Web browsing."

Bars and restaurants are also taking to wireless POS. The Pokky Mini Scoop system lets servers punch in orders at the table and instantly transmit them to the kitchen or bar. No more wasted happy-hour minutes while a server "makes the rounds" and an unnecessary trip to the counter! The Pokky "has literally dropped my labor cost back to the pre minimum-wage increase days. And whats even more important, it has enhanced my service capabilities when I need it the most, during those unexpected rushes," says Robert Miller, general manager of The Pine Cone Restaurants.

Retailers seek labor and inventory savings and improved customer service. Wireless systems deliver all three.