Across the United States, retail chains, grocery stores and restaurants are deploying Wi-Fi networks and, in so doing, speeding up customer purchases, improving inventory management and raising employee productivity.
Now, for the twist: To do it, most retail businesses are turning to specialized Wi-Fi partners for deployment—partners that have expertise in vertical-market application development—instead of traditional network resellers and integrators. In other words, when it comes to retail and wireless—hot-spot integrators and commodity resellers need not apply.
Just ask The Home Depot Inc., which is rolling out 39,500 wireless bar-code scanners from Symbol Technologies Inc., of Holtsville, N.Y. The devices, which resemble small sci-fi laser guns, allow cashiers to roam up to 150 feet from point-of-sale registers to complete transactions and assist shoppers.
Stratix Corp., a data capture solutions provider with extensive retail applications expertise, is assisting Symbol and Home Depot with the project.
“Weve been doing business with Home Depot since the late 1980s, when they first introduced bar-code scanning,” said Bonney Shuman, CEO of Stratix, in Norcross, Ga. “Most retailers are slow to adopt new technologies, but Home Depot has been very proactive at examining how Wi-Fi can improve their customer satisfaction.”
Restaurants Pulling Up a
Chair for Wi-Fi”>
Restaurants also are pulling up a chair for Wi-Fi. Darden Restaurants Inc., for instance, meets regularly with Ameranth Wireless, a San Diego solutions provider. The 3-year-old partnership is critical to Darden, which operates more than 1,280 Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze and Smokey Bones restaurants in North America.
Earlier this year, Ameranth designed wireless ordering and payment processing systems for Dardens newest restaurant, Seasons 52, in Orlando, Fla. The new systems allow dining room employees to spend more time up-selling customers and less time placing orders in the kitchen.
In grocery stores, meanwhile, the latest killer Wi-Fi application is known as “line busting.” Consider the following scenario: A slow-moving customer asks the checkout clerk a litany of questions and stalls the checkout lane. The longer the conversation lasts, the more stressed the customers in line become.
But with Wi-Fi in place, another employee can quickly ease the tension by assisting the next person in line. All it takes is a product like NextPosition, from Kyrus Corp., in Taylors, S.C. NextPosition is a handheld wireless system that allows employees to conduct business securely within or outside stores (for example, during sidewalk sales).
Longer term, Wi-Fi may make customers responsible for the entire retail sales process. NCR Corp., of Dayton, Ohio, and Symbol, for instance, have developed a self-service shopping scanner that some European retailers are testing now. The handheld system allows customers to scan purchases while moving about in a store. Random bag checks ensure that customers dont abuse the self-scanning system.
Turning on Wi-Fi isnt as easy as it sounds. Despite these anecdotal examples, many retail operations, grocery stores and restaurants are struggling to fully leverage the technology. In fact, deploying effective Wi-Fi networks is one of the five biggest technology challenges facing retail CIOs, according to Stores magazine, a trade publication from the National Retail Federation.
The public hot-spot craze certainly isnt helping matters. In recent months, gas stations, coffee shops, bookstores and other retail businesses have aggressively rolled out Wi-Fi hot spots for customers and travelers who presumably crave Internet access. Yet many of those hot spots fail to generate new revenue or new store traffic, said Craig Plunkett, CEO of CEDX Corp., a solutions provider in East Northport, N.Y.
“Retailers really have to decide what they want to do with Wi-Fi,” Plunkett said. “Some Wi-Fi hot spots are quite popular in the retail market, but you really need a prime location and a good revenue model.”
CEDX recently deployed a hot spot at PennComm Wireless, a retail store in New Yorks Penn Station. The store enjoys remarkable foot traffic because Penn Station serves 300,000 people who commute daily between Manhattan and Long Island.
In many hot-spot projects, CEDX recommends NetNearU Corp.s turnkey hot-spot system, which handles end-user authentication, customer billing and system authentication.
NetNearU, of Bryan, Texas, has a particularly strong following in the transportation market. Eager airport adopters include New Jerseys Newark International; New Yorks LaGuardia; and Minneapolis-St. Paul International, in Minnesota.
Taking the App Initiative
Taking the App Initiative
Nevertheless, retailers that are caught up in the hot-spot craze are missing the bigger picture. Truly savvy retailers are transforming their core applications—including receiving, price markdowns, inventory counts, mobile point of sale, manager paging and streaming video—into Wi-Fi applications, said Marty Trull, mobile solutions project manager at Agilysys Inc., of Cleveland.
At Wawa Inc.s Wawa Food Markets, for instance, employees use wireless 802.11b handheld scanners within the companys 550 convenience stores located throughout Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. The handhelds, which communicate with RoamAbout access points from Enterasys Networks Inc., in Andover, Mass., allow store clerks to more easily manage incoming stock and inventory control, according to Marty Maglio, director of IT architecture at Wawa, based in Wawa, Pa.
Similarly, Dollar Tree Stores Inc., of Chesapeake, Va., a discount retailer with more than 2,000 locations, has deployed Symbols PDT 6846 rugged handheld to ease inventory management and stock replenishment. A spokeswoman for Dollar confirmed the project, although Ray Hamilton, senior vice president and CIO, declined further comment.
Among the most advanced wireless retail systems are those found at BJs Wholesale Club Inc. The Natick, Mass., retailer—facing stiff competition from Costco Wholesale Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.s Sams Club—has pushed its Wi-Fi systems beyond basic inventory management.
For example, wireless scales connected to BJs pricing database are easily deployed in deli and bakery areas. Moreover, employees use voice-over-IP phones to speak over the Wi-Fi network. The NetVision phones, from Symbol, convert analog voice conversations into compressed digital packets that are sent over BJs Wi-Fi infrastructure, according to a spokesperson for BJs IT team.
Without such Wi-Fi systems in place, many stores typically suffer from poor customer service. Consider the case of a store clerk who gathers inventory information using stand-alone handhelds or—even worse—paper and pen. After gathering the data, the clerk has to leave the store floor and somehow synchronize data with the businesss back-office systems. Each minute spent in the back office risks alienating customers who cant find timely help in the aisles.