Tablets put customers, retail staff on the same side of the screen

Posted in: staffing- Nov 28, 2014 Comments Off

Part of the charm of Black Friday shopping is the lines of bundled-up souls waiting outside a Toys R Us or braced to hustle for the deals at a Target. Without them, far less adrenaline would be in the air — and no good video of the craziness for everyone to shake their heads over.

But beyond generating excitement, the lines can be the enemy of sales.

The 2014 holiday season may see the shortest lines ever, if technology delivers on its promise. Growing numbers of stores have been handing out tablets to their staff to take orders anywhere on the sales floor, while customers are using their own smartphones to make purchases.

Speeding up checkout isn’t necessarily the main opportunity in adding handheld sales devices to stores said Greg Buzek, president of Nashville-based retail analysis company IHL Group, but it might be what shoppers notice over the holidays.

“You’re only going to see it as a line-busting device,” he said.

Yet handing a tablet to the sales staff has the potential to do so much more — from catching frustrated customers and helping them find what they want rather than heading off to someone else’s store, to serving up information on what a particular customer has been researching online and his recent store purchases.

Used properly, a tablet also can have a powerful impact on the relationship between associates and customers, Mr. Buzek said. Putting them both on the same side of the screen makes them feel like friends, rather than adversaries, and that can mean larger sales.

Different types of merchants use the technology differently, some more successfully than others. But there’s little doubt that many are getting more comfortable with the systems, and investments are picking up speed.

Mr. Buzek predicted department stores and specialty retailers will be among the most enthusiastic adopters. “You’re going to see a massive transformation over the next two years there,” he said.

Saving the sale

It’s already underway. J.C. Penney’s CFO Edward J. Record described in an earnings call with analysts this summer how important it is to have what shoppers want when they want it, and how the retailer’s point-of-sale technology plays a role when a store doesn’t have the exact right item.

“Our associates know how to save the sale by helping customers find more sizes, styles or colors on, and the associates can place the order right at the POS on their handheld device,” he said.

It’s not just retail stores that are embracing the speed and efficiency that can be had with the right mobile point-of-sale system.

“The quicker you turn the tables over, the more business you’re going to get, the more you’re going to make,” said Dan Hadley, co-owner of Dad’s Pub & Grub in Monroeville.

The restaurant and bar — which sells 10-ounce burgers, a Yinzer hot dog and keeps 40 beers available on draft — began using a new point-of-sale system from Georgia-based sales transaction company NCR Corp. in August that allows the use of handheld devices.

The 72-seat restaurant had added a outdoor patio with more than 30 seats. Now the waiting staff can easily take orders from a table of 10 on the patio, send the food and drink details inside, and even process the credit card payment all with an iPad tablet hooked into the Dad’s Pub checkout system.

Mr. Hadley is hopeful the technology will come in handy the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when he expects crowds. Apparently, people either don’t want to cook dinner before the holiday or they want to celebrate a bit with family and friends in from out of town.

Having the tablet system means Dad’s Pub should be able to start a tab for those who get a drink while waiting for a table. It also mitigates waiting staff lining up at the register to check out their customers.

Adaptable systems

Kevin Kelly stood inside a food truck selling things such as a $5 sweet sausage dawg in the Strip District a couple of weeks ago, ready to check out customers on a tablet set prominently in the service window. The truck, owned by the Uncle Charley’s Sausage company in Vandergrift, was being run by Regent Square’s Square Cafe.

The idea is to test whether there’s a market for the mobile food operation, which launched this fall, said Mr. Kelly.

The truck is also serving as a test of another NCR system meant to make mobile ordering and checkout systems that work for restaurants. So far, Mr. Kelly said the new system been a vast improvement on a different handheld system the restaurant tried two years ago.

The earlier one was heavy and clunky and not a hit. This one can be turned to face customers, 90 percent of whom pay with credit cards.

Mr. Kelly was pretty impressed at the Pittsburgh Pierogie Fest in October, when thousands of people showed up and plenty of them stopped at his food truck.

“We were faster, I think, than anyone,” he said.

Technology improvements are making the systems more useful for more types of merchants, as well as adding layers to the kinds of uses the devices can be put to. As with anything, there are basic systems and more sophisticated ones.

Mr. Buzek estimated 50 percent to 60 percent of small retailers that have opened in the past couple of years have gone with mobile checkout systems.

That makes sense when a traditional point-of-sale system can cost $6,000. And he recently saw a mobile system offered for $39 a month including hardware and software.

Such systems generally don’t offer the detailed information and capabilities that a chain with 50 or more stores would get by investing in mobile capabilities that would sync up with an established point-of-sale system.

Major retailers such as Macy’s, Abercrombie & Fitch or Wet Seal, he said, may have point-of-sale systems that do things like bring up weather reports so they can change the ambiance of a store or shift the mix of products to adapt.

The issue of saving the sale comes up again and again. Mr. Buzek said studies have shown one of every three customers who go into a consumer electronics store prepared to buy something leaves empty handed. In some cases, because a store might not have an item although an online inventory check indicated it was there.

“The mobile allows you to save that sale,” he said, noting that a well-trained staff can order the item and promise to have it delivered to the customer’s home. Even if that adds shipping costs, it may build customer loyalty.

Dealing with the downside

Like any other technology, mobile isn’t going to solve every problem, and it even causes some new ones, Mr. Buzek said.

Some waiters feel the device forces them to look at it rather than at customers and hurts tips. He said there’ve been cases when the waiting staff stashes the tablet by the cash register and pulls out the old notepad.

Tablets also can turn store associates into mesmerized teens, he said, spending more time looking at the device than interacting with customers. Some stores have decided to take the tablets back out after that happened too often.

Tablets also aren’t as rugged as the cash registers that lasted years, so retailers can expect to buy new ones regularly.

The good thing about that is it might help the merchant keep up with the newest, cool devices. Having an old iPad won’t impress many customers.

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Article Source: Lindeman, T.F. (2014). Tablets put customers, retail staff on the same side of the screen. Post-Gazette. Retrieved from