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Shopper connections: as technologies become more intertwined, related opportunities for customer service are multiplying.

WHEN DISCUSSING EMERGING TECHNOLOGY, AN IMPORTANT CONCEPT IS ONE CALLED "CONVERGENCE." Convergence is the idea that many of the ways that we communicate with each other are through technology and that over time many of these will converge, or be incorporated in a single device or common process.

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New smart phones are being introduced that incorporate the facilities of a Palm-like device, including: calendar; address book; high-speed Internet connection for e-mail and surfing the Web; a camera that will take still and motion pictures; new capabilities to play and share music files or watch movies; communication through a Bluetooth connection with our cars, our computers and devices in the stores where we shop; a bar code scanner; an RFID chip; the ability to serve as a contactless credit card; and even a biometric fingerprint reader.

Now, I am the first to acknowledge that not everyone needs or will want a device with all of these capabilities, but I believe that they will become a pervasive part of the lifestyle of many of our customers.

Retail technology in stores will become totally wireless. POS, kiosks, scales and portable devices carried or worn by our employees will all interact wirelessly with store files and corporate systems. Customers will be able to opt in to a wide range of services using a Bluetooth, wireless or Web connection.

When all of this happens, the shopping experience could be radically different for those of our customers who opt in. I emphasize "opt in" because I believe this is a critical issue. There is no service that all customers will want. The store and headquarters must be committed to offering and marketing these services on an opt-in basis, with the recognition that success is measured by the total number of customers who use any of these services; it is not measured service by service.

For example, not all customers will want to use their phones as the identity source to interact with kiosks or to receive other store services. Some will love the service, while others will find it intrusive. The use of biometrics to read fingerprints at the POS may seem like a major invasion of privacy to many, while others will love the convenience of using it for identification and to handle payment for their purchases. Many in the industry believe that contactless credit cards and/or credit card data proffered through a cell phone linked wirelessly to the POS will become a de facto standard within the next two to five years.

What would all of this look like to the customer? If, like most of us, she keeps her cell phone turned on, either a wireless network or Bluetooth connection would immediately connect her to the store's network. This would prompt her with some of the following opt-in services: a number for service at any selected department; a list of new items, sale prices and customized offerings printed as she passes a kiosk near the front door; access to a product store location file; transmission of her identity to store management so that they can locate and greet "top 10" customers, new customers or those who may be entitled to event-driven rewards such as birthdays; or targeted product samples.

Alerts would be triggered for such things as Internet orders awaiting pickup, photos completed processing, and messages from paired phones such as requests by spouse or children for additions to the shopping list.

At checkout the POS system would recognize the customer wirelessly as she entered the checkout lane, deducting frequent shopper offers automatically for purchases and reporting accumulated values for future rewards. If she has opted in, the transaction would link to a default payment process and prompt the customer for approval, using her fingerprint, of credit card information transferred from her phone.

Customers could also benefit from improved store operations. Employees would be alerted to out-of-stock conditions where back room inventory is available; production departments would receive hourly production plans that reflect both real-time sales and forecasts of future demand. In the same way, other employees will receive work assignments reflecting store conditions and their job skills.

Do these scenarios seem very far-fetched to you? They shouldn't. Important pieces of them are already being done in the U.S., the U.K. and Japan. What should your company be doing to use this view of the future to enhance your strategic position in the market? First, I think that every retailer should establish a "future vision" committee to track activity reported around the world. Second, I would suggest that your company attempt to prioritize these varied services and technologies based upon their impact on your customers and your operations at store, DC and headquarters.

With these priorities established, I would expect any retailer with ambitions for market leadership to develop and commit to a pilot test program in a few selected stores. In future columns I will discuss how I would plan and organize these pilot tests. Since many companies in our industry participate in share groups, I would also make these pilot projects part of the share group process and encourage all participating companies to open them to group reporting and discussions, perhaps offering highly interested members the opportunity to provide oversight to these pilot tests.

I cannot think of a more appropriate and exciting activity for any share group than to be involved in the progress and experiences of how retailers and their customers respond to these new service offerings.

Richard Shulman is president of Industry Systems Development Corp. in Dix Hills, N.Y. He can be reached at isd@att.net.
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Title Annotation:TECHNOLOGY
Author:Shulman, Richard
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:935
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