Magazine Article | November 1, 2004

Price Checker/Verifier Keeps Clerks Up To Date With Product Availability

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

A bar code-based price checker/verifier, along with a LAN, enables sales clerks at NEXT stores to instantly check product availability.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, November 2004

NEXT (Leicester, England), a retailer of fashionable women's, men's, and children's apparel, as well as home furnishings, operates more than 370 stores throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. The company also maintains a catalog arm and an online store. A vast majority of the store's merchandise bears the NEXT brand name.

One of NEXT's primary goals is to provide its customers with the highest level of convenience, along with an enjoyable, positive shopping experience. In keeping with this goal, the retailer recently concluded it had a few areas that needed improvement. A prime example was the shoe department, where space constraints rendered it impossible to display items in every available size, style, and color. Associates often left the sales floor unattended to see if a particular shoe that was not on display might be in the stockroom. If the product were indeed unavailable, the associates would return to the customer, only to be asked to look for a different color or style. Frequently this cycle was repeated several times, with associates hoping to find the patron still waiting for the requested pair of shoes.

Accordingly, last year NEXT conducted an Internet search for technology it could use to bolster customer convenience. Management had originally planned to address the issue with handheld POS peripherals, but eventually decided that fixed devices would be a more practical choice based on the number of potential applications. An Internet search led the company to the ScanVue bar code-based price checker/verifier from IEE (Van Nuys, CA).

NEXT conducted a pilot test of 10 ScanVue devices over a period of several months, followed by a more extensive test of 220 units. In both cases, the company says, the technology was exceptionally well received; managers whose stores experimented with the devices in the shoe departments asked for more units, and those who heard about them, but had not tried them, asked to do so. Each store will deploy an average of three to five devices, depending on store size and identified need. The units, which run a homegrown inventory management application that resides on NEXT's corporate server, are being installed predominantly in shoe departments and fitting rooms.

LAN Provides Real-Time Communications
NEXT implemented a customized version of the ScanVue device that integrates a bar code scanner with a keyboard. The latter allows associates to manually capture SKU numbers when necessary -- a must for the retailer because the bar codes on many shoes are difficult to scan. To accommodate the limited number of electric sockets found in most stores, the vendor also adjusted the device to incorporate power-over-Ethernet capability.

Now, instead of running back and forth to the stockroom to ascertain inventory availability, sales associates query the retailer's inventory management system by scanning the bar code on the product or entering the SKU number into the keyboard. A message as to whether the merchandise is in-store and, if so, precisely where in the stockroom or on the sales floor it may be found is then transmitted back to the appropriate device over a storewide LAN. In cases where an item is out of stock, employees use the device to find out which other NEXT stores do have it on hand. Associates can then take orders for the product right at the POS and arrange to have the product delivered to the customer's home if desired.

Additionally, in preparation for NEXT's end-of-season sale, store clerks use the hardware to obtain the prices of all items with missing price tags. This makes reticketing quicker and easier, freeing up associates to spend time with customers.

According to the company, the device has made shopping much more pleasant for customers. Questions about inventory availability are answered immediately, and patrons need not stand in the fitting room waiting for a sales associate to return with apparel in a smaller or larger size than had originally been tried on. Customers also like the convenience of learning right away which stores do have the products they want and being able to place orders for merchandise at other stores without going there in person to do so.

Just as significantly, having the hardware on hand has reduced the amount of time sales associates spend away from the floor or the cash register. Heightened visibility of employees means better customer service, which along with enhanced shopping convenience, means a potential for increased sales.