If you define, design, deploy, and support, wireless handheld applications can be a great retail tool.
Wireless handheld applications have become more powerful and cost-effective in recent years, which has led companies involved in consumer goods distribution and retail to roll out wireless solutions at a record pace. Many of the strongest ROI cases involve applications specifically designed for key job functions such as field sales, merchandising teams, delivery and distribution drivers, regional managers of multiunit retailers, and maintenance and repair.
If wireless technology is applied indiscriminately, ROIs can be fuzzy, but when applied thoughtfully to a critical job function, there are tangible savings from fuel and labor expenses, as well as improved customer service. For example, front line employees who spend most of their time in the field moving product from plant to store shelf are more productive with access to invoices, inventories, and other information that is consolidated from numerous back end databases and prioritized on a handset. Having the right information, at the right time (in front of a customer), will lower costs and improve customer service.
So, Where Do You Start?
Companies considering wireless solutions need to first develop a wireless strategy and execution plan. Aside from an IT staff, the plan should include consistent involvement of end users, operations managers, and a project manager. Successful deployments follow a basic framework.
1. Define — Look broadly at all mobile job functions and prioritize based on business impact and ease of deployment. Also, recognize that mobile applications have unique considerations, such as:
n Expect small screen sizes, so don't design user interface for a laptop
n Users interact with the solution from anywhere, possibly with one hand
n Communication is more varied including voice, e-mail, text, location data, photos, and now video
n Signal strength and coverage vary, even on the best networks
2. Design — Make sure to map each business process in detail and involve the end users. Mapping a business process the way it is today, versus the way it could be with real-time wireless data, will reveal measurable ROI opportunities. Process mapping may require outside help, but is critical before committing to any software or hardware components. It is also critical for technology vendors and IT staff to spend a 'day in the life' of the mobile employee.
3. Deploy — Disruption to current business flow is always a concern with mission-critical applications, but these risks can be mitigated. Initial pilot users should have a variety of skill levels and receive hands-on training. Sometimes it is advisable to roll out a partial solution, but look for ways to roll out a complete solution in a limited market or section of the business. Last, but not least, make sure that each of your vendor partners is accompanying every step of the process. Don't be afraid to make adjustments, but make sure that all solution vendors are aware of changes.
4. Support — Demand a long-term commitment from each vendor and continue measuring results, since they will be well positioned to resolve problems and optimize the solution to achieve maximum benefits.
As companies embark on these initiatives, they should avoid going it alone or applying wireless solutions indiscriminately. Analyzing current and alternative process flows and their financial impact requires extensive experience, and you should demand that solutions providers understand your business as well as their technology.