Magazine Article | October 18, 2006

Expand Your Wireless Data Collection Potential

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

PDAs, RFID (radio frequency identification), VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol), and Wi-Fi are used in back and front office retail operations today. What can these technologies do for you?

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, November 2006

In retail, collecting data using wireless devices traditionally began as a back office activity. The convenience of tracking pallets, boxes, and items with scanners improved accuracy, reduced overhead, and saved time. Some retailers brought scanning to their front office operations (e.g. wireless bar code scanning at the POS), and advancements in technology have enabled extensive adoption of wireless device usage in all retail processes. Wireless data collection was a means of streamlining processes and adding convenience; however, today using wireless technology to gather data has become a necessity, especially as it enhances the customer experience when it allows the collection and recall of CRM (customer relationship management) data.

Wireless-enabled PDAs help management take action expeditiously. Manufacturers equip these devices with so many features that there’s almost no reason for managers — especially store managers — to spend days at their desks. Additionally, colossal network bandwidth enables rapid information flow to and from wireless PDAs.

RFID, Wi-Fi Improve Back, Front Office Operations

The ability to track information between the supply chain and store operations enables managers to react quickly to discrepancies between the two. For some retailers, this means improving the data capture process. RFID improves the tracking of products through the supply chain with minimal human intervention. “Retailers and suppliers have visibility into the products received at the store, those items placed on display, and products that are sitting in the back room waiting to be placed on the sales floor,” says Frank Riso, senior director of the retail industry solutions group at Symbol, a manufacturer of mobile hardware. “With RFID technology, this information is available hours after delivery.”

The price of equipment and the lack of proven benefits slowed the adoption of RFID. For retailers, some of the benefits come from item-level tracking. “There have been some instances of item-level tracking using RFID, but those have typically involved high-valued goods or products with a high risk of theft,” states Brian Schulte, retail industry marketing director at Intermec, a data collection/mobile solutions provider. “RFID has also been effective in some LP [loss prevention] applications, however. It’s a way of tracking goods and identifying discrepancies between products leaving a DC and those arriving on the store shelf, which pinpoints high-risk shrink areas.”

Voice-enabled technology has improved back office operations and spread to front office operations. For example, voice-activated picking in warehouses has proven to increase picking efficiency. “VoIP and/or voice-activated technology brought to the front office eliminates the need for store managers to carry walkie-talkies and cell phones,” says Schulte. “Because managers can use a wireless network in the store to access the phone system, they initiate calls to suppliers while standing at the store shelf.”

“Today, store managers use wireless PDAs to conduct price management and order management,” says David Paufler, senior product manager in the mobile and wireless unit at PSC, a vendor of data capture technology. “While on the store floor, managers take action on out-of-stock items, check inventory in the back room, and automatically order from the warehouse.”

Wi-Fi’s immense bandwidth capabilities made wireless networks routine today. “Wi-Fi has become the commonly shared standard for wireless networks,” says Marino Tanas, president of the U.S. subsidiary of Datalogic, a manufacturer of mobile computers and bar code readers. “Wi-Fi allows for increased throughput of data across the network and more security in the transmission of data. A large number of operators can use the technology in a back office area to simultaneously communicate with the receiving system.” Wi-Fi also improves communications in front office activities such as stocking shelves and requesting assistance from store managers. “The main advantage of Wi-Fi data transmission is that all data can be transmitted to systems at the same time, providing speedy access to sales flow and inventory levels,” says Tanas. Increased visibility allows managers to view profitability information soon after transaction completion. “Some retailers spread their use of Wi-Fi to customers, as well,” says Marc Barnett, solution architect at CDW, a provider of technology products. “For example, if Wi-Fi is available, I can surf the Internet using my PDA from within the store.”

POS Improved With Wireless Technology

Wireless technology creates nontraditional options for the POS. “Wireless technology untethers employees and provides the freedom of mobility, unlocking restrictions to certain locations,” state Barnett. “It releases managers from being trapped at a desktop PC and cashiers from being constrained by a cash register.” Nontraditional POS options enhance the customer relationship, which is the pinnacle of all retailers’ goals. “Self-service kiosks, item location systems, price identifiers, and line-busting systems are requested by retailers, and all are capable through the use of wireless technology,” affirms Barnett.  

Line busting is especially popular for providing quick and effective service. “Retailers of all types can add to their throughput by implementing line busting,” says Paufler. “They do it for different reasons based on their store model. A retailer like The Gap uses a handheld to prering merchandise instead of adding lanes, to keep more salespeople on the store floor helping customers, while larger establishments like Costco use line busting to speed up the checkout process during peak periods.”

Devices used for line busting are different from those used by store managers and warehouse employees. Manufacturers now develop wireless devices for specific purposes. Devices combining the functionality of PDAs and bar code scanners are evolving. “More ergonomics are involved in the creation of bar code scanning devices for warehouse employees using a scanner for 8-hour periods,” states Paufler.

Some specialty retailers offer customers mobile computers upon entry to their stores. They provide price checks and product information (e.g. colors, sizes, items in inventory). “Mobile computers act as cash registers to reduce lines during peak sales times and improve the customer’s shopping experience,” says Riso.