SPEED ZONE

Wireless technologies, now a staple in the logistics world, are starting to make an impact at store level, speeding checkouts, improving communications and generally upgrading customer service.While more retailers are beginning to test handheld self-checkout, where the customer scans products as they shop and then breezes through the front end, others see strong potential for employee use of the devices.

Wireless technologies, now a staple in the logistics world, are starting to make an impact at store level, speeding checkouts, improving communications and generally upgrading customer service.

While more retailers are beginning to test handheld self-checkout, where the customer scans products as they shop and then breezes through the front end, others see strong potential for employee use of the devices. For example, there is the so-called "line-busting," where an employee prowls the front end seeking customers with small orders and plastic cards to check out quickly, special events like sidewalk sales where the mobility of the handheld device comes into play, and departments with intermittent periods of high traffic, like the deli.

Wireless kiosks coupled with customer identifiers can assist shoppers with their grocery list, generating special targeted offers, and providing nutritional information or recipes based on the customer's profile. The technology also exists to alert managers when their top spenders are in their store.

Additionally, retailers are evaluating wireless scales to optimize merchandising flexibility and using communication devices to enable key personnel to work the floor, while responding to urgent calls.

"We've only just begun with wireless," said Jack Gridley, meat and seafood director, Dorothy Lane Markets, Dayton, Ohio.

For example, Dorothy Lane is enhancing its high level of customer service with wireless scales in the service departments. In addition to the obvious boon of not having to rewire the scales to enable a reset or seasonal shift in merchandising, Gridley cites mobility as a key benefit -- the scales can be moved without losing information.

"In perishable departments, things move around all the time," Gridley said. The operator holds one-day "Lobster Mania" sales, a "Salmon Barbecue" featuring ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook product, and a fall "Apple Fest," where product is bountiful and priced to move. Long lines at these events prompted Dorothy Lane to go wireless with flexible POS equipment that can be positioned for the best use of space in the area.

"Another reason we like wireless scales in the perishable departments is our service level," Gridley said. "As our associates help customers we want them to be looking at our customers as they weigh the order. We don't want our associates turning their back on our customers."

Dorothy Lane is breaking ground on a new store that it expects to open early next fall. This unit will feature a totally wire-free POS.

Bristol Farms, El Segundo, Calif., uses a wireless POS stand when the retailer wants to take sales to the street. The operator leverages its fresh farmers market image merchandising in-season produce outside the unit's walls. The wireless register is positioned outside the store along with the produce being displayed to prompt impulse sales.

Flexibility is a major benefit operators cite for going wireless. For example, resets are not hindered by hard wiring and reconfiguring the front end is much more easily achieved. Another benefit is avoiding the costs of running wires throughout a store and the losses from accidental disconnections.

"With wireless POS or scales you don't have to worry about connections being pulled out, losing all the information and taking time to reload and reset," said Gridley.

Retailers are also using wireless technology to enhance store-level communication, thus bolstering customer service and increasing sales.

"The industry is doing a good job learning how we can use technology to make our businesses more efficient," said Ken Fobes, chairman, Strategy Partners Group, Point Vedra Beach, Fla. "Now we have to spend some effort discovering ways to make technology grow our business and improve the relationship with the customer."

Some chains, like Andronico's, Albany, Calif., and Kroger, Cincinnati, are using wireless devices to complete ordering and direct store distribution functions in addition to offering the flexibility of wireless point-of-sale stations.

By the creative use of wireless technology, retailers can control expenses, while also encouraging repeat customers.

At Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., store associates use wireless handheld devices to do price checks. The units are also being used as an ordering tool to keep a check on out-of-stocks, said an industry source.

"Retailers have learned to strip out inefficiencies. Now they are learning how to grow their business by catering to their best customers," said Fobes. "They are looking at how initiatives benefit customers while improving business systems from an efficiency standpoint."

"As cell phones and Internet usage grows and we become more dependent on technology, the retailers that will prove to be the most successful will be the ones that know how to harness technology into solutions customers want," said Fobes.

At the top of most customer's wish list is better service. As a result, chains including A&P, Montvale, N.J., are exploring wireless solutions to help untether store managers from store offices and backrooms, keeping them in the public eye of the sales floor. To facilitate this, A&P is rolling out mobile sales devices following a successful test. The retailer expects the new technology to enhance customer service and maximize store level sales.

These handheld computers will enable store management to perform day-to-day functions including the approval of over rings and monitoring cashiers while enabling new store-level applications such as flash sales reports. Additionally, the infrastructure can be employed in other areas including direct store delivery, receiving, ordering and shelf price management.

Wireless devices are being employed as management information and marketing tools tying the technology to one-on-one marketing with particular customers. "Retailers are finding a dramatic benefit in having untethered people," said Tom Murphy, Peak Tech Consulting, Colorado Springs, Co. "With managers allowed to walk the sales floor, customers begin to establish that personal relationship with the store."

Retailers are not the only ones seeking instant information. As the number of items swell in perishable departments, operators are installing wireless scales that put customers back in the driver's seat in the weighing and labeling of purchases.