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Myriad Roles of Cell Phones Test Food Retailers

Myriad Roles of Cell Phones Test Food Retailers

Every day there seems to be another new application for smart phones. One begins to wonder, paraphrasing Homer Simpson: Is there anything smart phones can't do?

In retail, smart phones are not only changing the way consumers shop — through both mobile marketing and mobile commerce applications — but the way retailers run their operations.

Two feature stories in this week's issue serve up new examples. In a Center Store article, a test at PCC Natural Markets, Seattle, is described in which shoppers will use their phones to snap a picture of a Quick Response (QR) two-dimensional bar code in the produce department; this will generate a two-minute, how-to video on the phone providing tips on how to select, cut and serve melons and avocados.

This is but the latest way in which smart phones — and even more modestly featured cell phones — are serving as conduits for information about products and promotions in the form of text messages, coupons, emails, shopping lists and other communications.

As a consumer shopping tool, smart phones will become truly powerful when they are able to easily scan product bar codes and pay the bill at the POS, replacing payment and loyalty cards.

On the operational side, an article in the Technology section looks at how United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, employs software that allows executives to view video feeds from surveillance cameras at its stores and headquarters on their smart phones.

Having live video at their fingertips helps United's loss prevention executives make snap decisions about emergencies and enables corporate department managers a view into whether customers are being properly served and other work is being done. The chain has really only scratched the surface of possible applications.

Taken together, these two articles suggest one of the challenges retailers face in regard to mobile technology: Which of the many aspects do you tackle first? Should you focus on the consumer marketing and commerce side, or the operational side, or both? Should there be one individual dedicated to mobile applications, or should they be divvied up among functional departments?

One new resource for retailers that can shed light on these questions is the Mobile Blueprint from the National Retail Foundation. This free 176-page document, a product of the NRF's Mobile Retail Initiative, takes an exhaustive look at how retailers can leverage cell phones in marketing, ecommerce and store operations; it's available at

Having one individual, probably with IT experience, dedicated to cell phones seems like a good strategy, given the constant evolution of the technology, the need for standards in mobile retailing, and the growing adoption of the most powerfully equipped phones.

The biggest impact of cell phones on retail is yet to come. Retailers should start getting ready now.