Magazine Article | July 18, 2007

Retail's Great Communication Challenge

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

Mobile employees, diverse inventory, and creative store footprints require communication-enabling technologies.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, August 2007

Humans cannot not communicate. I had a professor in college who taught an entire course on that theory. That negation has stuck in my head since the first time I heard it, and I've often found myself challenging it. The theory always wins, held up by the great philosophical debate about whether a disgruntled employee searching the back room for a size 9.5 wingtip is actually making noise if there's nobody else back there to hear his swearing.

The problem here is that, while the employee is, in fact, communicating, his misguided frustration is falling on deaf ears because he's not equipped with the proper tools. As inventories diversify in response to consumer choice, as store formats and footprints expand due to competitive pressure, and as the point of service gets increasingly mobile, communication among store employees is ever more imperative. These same trends amplify the challenge retailers face to facilitate communication among their workforces.

Tech, Employee Mobility Requires Communication
Jeff Ditges is CEO of Source Communications, a provider of POS cabling products and installation services. Retailers have embraced his company's offering of a completely wireless and mobile POS called Wireless Cash Cart as an enabler of dynamic retailing. With the Wireless Cash Cart, the POS can be moved anywhere the wireless network reaches, both in and around the store. Mobile POS solutions are taking many form factors, and they're enabling more efficient integration and better customer service. "Wireless technology makes implementation easier, because there's no necessity to hire an electrician and there is no cabling to run. You tie wirelessly into an access point, and you're up and running," says Ditges.  There's no denying their return in terms of efficiency and customer service improvement, but mobile POS stations are also making it more difficult to know who and what is where in the store. After all, checkout lane two is always between checkout lanes one and three. The mobile POS and its operator, on the other hand, are in the deli, at the garden center, on the sidewalk, under the tent in the parking lot, etc. It's a mobile asset, and before deploying it a retailer should set communication parameters, complete with communication-enabling technology like two-way radio, around its use.

Store formats and footprints also create communication challenges, with sheer size being the biggest factor retailers must take into consideration when developing a communications bulwark. Store-wide paging a la the blue-light special is not targeted, is obtrusive to the shopping experience, and is simply passé to boot. Personal pagers are only so effective due to their text limitations and multistep process. The two-way radio in a headset form factor, pioneered and proven in the early 1990s by the likes of Old Navy, seems to be the de facto standard in big-box communication protocol.

Pragmatic Applications For Two-Way Radio
Gary Wooten is director of sales and marketing for the Business Radio Division at Kenwood USA. He cites store operations as the leading driver of return on two-way radio adoption. "The best applications for two-way radios are those that establish effective and simple communications for personnel like managers, front end customer service, back end inventory, individual department personnel, sales floor personnel, and security," he says. "With multiple-channel models, you can customize your store's communications by organizing employees into groups." Wooten also recommends using radios as a training tool security blanket.  "When customers ask new store employees where something is or how much it costs, the radio allows for quick and efficient answers, even for the new employee."

While deployment of an on-site radio system is relatively easy, retailers need to be aware that these devices are licensed by the FCC. "As such," says Wooten, "There are occasionally radio interference issues with devices being used in an environment like a surrounding mall." Craig Chenicek, director of radio products at Motorola, concurs. "You have to go to the FCC  (Federal Communications Commission) and get a frequency," he says. "Most big retailers probably already have this, but you can't share frequencies with another store or you'll hear one another's communication." Because only so many frequencies are available and the demand for multiple frequencies in a single setting is growing, many manufacturers are going from analog to digital transmission to make better use of that limited spectrum. "Digital technology provides more capacity and improves the privacy of communication," says Chenicek.

Application Integration On Communication Devices
Chenicek agrees with Wooten that operational efficiencies are driving the adoption of two-way radio in retail. "Price checks, for instance, are executed far more efficiently via two-way than on foot, especially in large-footprint stores," he says. But since those early days of headset-donning store associates, the integration of communication technologies on one device has made the two-way radio an even more compelling and useful tool.

The integration of phone, pager, and radio technologies on one device opens lines of communication beyond the store, important in the 'want it now' climate of modern retailing. Chenicek says Motorola partnered with Nextel to make paging, telephony, and two-way integration happen for horizontal applications, and similar mixes of technology  are now being deployed with specific objectives in the retail space. Motorola recently acquired Symbol, where data collection via bar code scanning is king. In the retail vertical, Chenicek anticipates the integration of bar code and voice will be logical. At the store level, he says retailers will relegate voice to two-way and one-to-many radio as opposed to telephony, due simply to the likelihood of indiscriminate use of the phone by employees. "The acquisition of Symbol is very important in the retail space, because we have a critical mass of retail customers who share the vision for the integration of voice communication and data collection on one device," says Chenicek.

Sophisticated Applications For Two-Way Radio
Let's get back to that employee looking for the wingtip in the stock room. He's in a hurry because his customer is waiting in the store. But he doesn't have the information he needs, so he's frustrated. He doesn't know if there's a size 9.5 in stock. If there is one in stock, he can't find it. He could check inventory on the back room PC, but that's a long walk and his customer is in a hurry. Change the scene by slapping a headset on his noggin, and today's radio technology gives him the power to broadcast a wingtip SOS to all his footwear colleagues. Radio communication isn't just about one-to-one communication anymore. A radio APB (all points bulletin) on the wingtip might reach an associate with the knowledge that our frustrated employee lacks. Better yet, a footwear associate at or near a PC harboring inventory data can definitively check on the stock position of this shoe and respond quickly. Better still, the employee never got frustrated in the first place, because he executed the APB without leaving the customer's side.

Tech advances have also enabled a scenario where retailers can control their two-way radio networks without incurring customization charges or recurring bills. The Motorola MotoTurbo solution is one such offering. It gives retailers ownership of a private mobile radio environment in which the retailer owns the units and can configure which units can communicate with one another. Chenicek says the product was developed in response to need — retailers need more system capacity — because associates need to communicate with one another more frequently, and multiple people need to communicate at the same time.

The Future Of Two-Way Communication In Retail
Integration of applications on a single device is the trend that end users of two-way devices should keep their eyes on. Motorola is integrating GPS (global positioning system) technology for fleet and delivery management and visibility, as well as safety. The combination of RF (radio frequency) and IT, specifically the ability to send data via two-way radio, will allow the radio to communicate with devices like computers, cell phones, door locks, or anything else tied in via IP (Internet Protocol) connectivity. Two-way radios are already being used for telemetric device control, by which radio signals allow the user to remotely control physical door access, lights, HVAC, and so on.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers has been a harbinger of real-time enterprise-wide visibility in retail. It's an end to which there are many means, none of them easy. Within the four walls of a store, however, mobile, connected employees are a microcosmic model of a fluid enterprise. Two-way radio is a cost-effective means of achieving open communication and, therefore, visibility in the store.

That guy in the back room is still running the aisles and climbing shelves, feverishly looking for those size 9.5 wingtips. His customer is growing impatient on the sales floor. Do them both a favor, and give two-way radio a try.