Wireless & Retail

By  Susan Nunziata — January 19, 2009

Wireless in retailing can take many forms. Even if we were to group them into two broad areas, customer-facing and enterprise-facing, there would still be a wide range of permutations within each.

Customer-facing solutions include:

  • free WiFi access
  • handheld scanners for functions such as bridal registries and things like self-service shop-and-scan
  • mobile marketing that can send coupons and special offers directly to a shopper's mobile phone
  • wireless solutions for in-store media and POS displays
  • eventually, mcommerce, where the cellphone becomes the virtual wallet.

Enterprise-facing solutions include
  • WLANs and the range of solutions to help  manage and secure these
  • hardware such as handheld computers, barcode scanners, magnetic stripe readers, and mobile printers
  • a wide range of software and applications.

For the enterprise, wireless and mobility solutions enable communications up and down the retail supply chain. For example, in-vehicle solutions enable delivery trucks to communicate with both warehouse. Likewise, wireless handheld devices enable store clerks to connect with central databases, where they can retrieve instant answers to improve customer service on the retail floor.

Of course, concerns over security and the much-publicized breaches of customer data from wireless retail networks continue to make this particular vertical a tough road to hoe for mobile and wireless.

If a walk around the National Retail Federation trade show in New York City on January 11, 2009, is any indication, the beleagured retail industry may do well to embrace mobility and wireless in all its forms as they face increasing pressure to survive the current economic downturn.

Certainly, the power it can offer on the retail floor is immense. Indeed, our colleagues at RIS News, which covers technology for the retail vertical, declared m-commerce one of the "Top 10 Things You Need To Know" from the NRF Big Show.

They were particularly struck by Escalate Retail's "Buy Anywhere, Fulfill Anywhere Commerce," which enables smartphones to essentially become bar code readers.

"If you are a retailer and not piloting mobile you are in danger of missing the boat," declares Joe Skorupa of RIS News in his blog.

Stop & Shop has been a pioneer in mobility for its customers. The supermarket chain is now expanding its wireless scan-and-buy service to an additional 50 stores. The solution lets shoppers use wireless handheld devices to scan barcodes and pay for items as they shop.

Others are expanding their enterprise-facing wireless deployments. For example, Giant Eagle supermarkets recently deployed a solution to manage and secure the multi-vendor WiFi networks it currently has running at 400 corporate and independently owned-and-operated sites.

Publix Super Markets is taking mobility a step further down the supply chain. The retailer is deploying onboard computers and fleet management software in all 600 of its delivery trucks. The computers will be used to extend the company's on-premise software into the cabs of its delivery trucks, among other functions.

Nonetheless, not all retailers are in a position to readily embrace wireless. After NRF, we spoke with Pat Beemer, I.T. Manager at Seattle Lighting, which services both the retail consumer and the construction trade. He recently ripped out the company's WLAN in all locations except its Dallas, TX, showroom (which is open only twice a year to the trade and offers free WiFi as a customer service).

He says his company deemed it "too expensive" to secure the wireless network to adhere to PCI compliance regulations. He's exploring cost-effective solutions that will eventually allow for the return of the WLAN, but for now, "we're mainly concerned with keeping our computers running and keeping our email moving. A large portion of our business is generated by new housing starts. Our main focus right now is to stay solvent."

Managing and securing the WLAN is clearly a major issue for retailers, and network solutions vendors including Motorola, Cisco, Aruba, and Meru Networks -- as well as VPN vendors such as Columbitech and SonicWALL, among others -- are just some of the many vendors to have introduced a range of products aimed at addressing WLAN security issues across multiple verticals. It's a topic we'll be covering further in the March/April print edition of Mobile Enterprise.

Beyond security, it's the economy that is ultimately going to shape the future of wireless and mobility for the retail and supply chain. There's no doubt that wireless and mobility solutions can help any enterprise improve productivity, increase efficiency and facilitate enhanced customer service. Indeed, many retail enterprises are likely to demand a clear-cut business case before they invest. With overall retail sales ending 2008 down 2.8% and further declines expected this year, it stands to reason that coming up with the funds to fully realize a mobility vision is going to be a challenge for many in this vertical.


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