2011.29 | Mobile Retail Apps

In order to get the attention of today’s consumer, retailers need to provide the best possible experience from any channel where customers wish to interface with them.  Michael’s – home to the crafty types – has put together their own mobile app with a spin towards functionality that they feel that their following would enjoy – things like video examples and mobile versions of datasheets, as well as the usual coupons and offers.  Sounds terrific.

Here are a few thoughts about following in their footsteps with an iPhone app:

1.  Ensure your target market are iPhone users.  I’m sure Michael’s checked that and decided that the development was worthwhile.  Mobile apps are inexpensive compared to many enterprise level retail software development efforts, so it probably wasn’t a difficult decision.  Because Michael’s already had a library of web based resources anyway, the only addition was probably the iPhone interface.

Fundamentally, with web services in place they can all be leveraged to build an app for another platform.  More practically, I recommend a mobile web based interface for the retailer’s website that will work on any platform.  There are platforms that will automatically re-format the screens to fit any size device – Blackberry, iPhone, Android, Windows and more – based on the browser and screen resolution of the device accessing the page.  This is more a function of practicality than design.  Why provide functionality to users on one platform, when for a similar cost, you could provide it to all smartphone users?

Examples of mobile web instead of apps click on theses links with your mobile: LLBean and Sears. For lots of examples of apps, check out my page on Canadian retailers with links to social media and apps.  A recent article indicates that retailers are starting to follow this web format instead of iPhone apps.

2.  Make sure the mobile app has functions that are practical and add to the customer experience you want to provide.  Just because an advertising company will throw in an app for free as part of a contract, or your head of marketing wants to have an app to see your logo in the apple store doesn’t necessarily make it worthwhile to the consumer.  In fact, if the app doesn’t add anything new to the arrangement, the consumer may feel you have been wasting their time.    A standard store finder isn’t enough – I can just do that on the maps application.  However, one that shows via a coloured icon that the store is currently open, as is used on Starbucks Canada or McDonalds Canada, is a pretty good idea.  The Home Depot Canada app has a function to measure screws and various other items.  All of these are examples of trying to do something different that is helpful, and can enhance the customer experience for their specific clientele.  I can’t tell you the idea that will make your app or web based store, but your customers might!  Ask them.

3.  Ensure the app can identify the user in a way that the customer can opt in or opt out.  Most retailers have a loyalty program in place.  What better way to identify the customers than leveraging this same infrastructure?  Be certain that opting in works flawlessly and simply and that nobody is forced to identify themselves.  In fact, if there is an additional benefit to the customer to identifying themselves on the app, all the better.  If there is extra functionality for loyalty users, they are more likely to identify themselves and be happy about it.

Why identify customers?  There are benefits to customers and retailer alike.  First, if the customer is identified, it is possible to provide a unique experience for that customer.  Whether it is default languages or remembering shopping lists, having that identification allows the retailer to provide additional benefits to the consumer, and they in turn may have the opportunity to opt in to the experience that they wish to have across mobile, POS and web interfaces.  A customized experience can drive loyalty, which drives bigger baskets and more sales.

Secondly, having the identification in place allows retailers the ability to identify what channels and functionality are used and by whom.  Considering the myriad opportunities for IT investment, knowing who is using what in what way provides a validation of customer usage against customer sales.  If only 200 customers are using your iPhone app, that may seem like a bad investment, but if 90% of them are in your top segment for sales, that may not be the case.  Just looking at downloads of an app is not good enough anymore.  This also turns around for the customers.  Seeing what customers are using ensures that the best channels and functionality are available to them for their retailer.

2011.22 | Where to use mobile POS

Recent efforts at the office have me thinking about businesses that might want to use mobile POS.

I have a mobile POS unit up and running and have been demonstrating its use around the office and to clients. Whenever I demo the solution to colleagues I have had consistent comments that come down to the fact that it’s a really cool solution, but people seem uncertain of where it could be leveraged best.

Mobile POS capability and queue busting have been available for years now. I’ve played with various devices and platforms and it’s never caught on in volume, but with mobile now so recognizable for consumers this form factor is the hot thing of the moment.  I’ve started to see it in wider deployment, but you have to wonder if EMV will hold us back in Canada.  Apple store and Air Canada use it in Canada, but Home Depot are using it in the US and Disney and Gap have been getting into it.

No matter what platform a retailer chooses, it is absolutely fundamental to consider how the platform will be leveraged in an operation.  If the objectives of a mobile unit are not clearly defined, and mobile is not fully integrated into the front end operations of a retail store,  it will not be successful.

Before any major retailer considers using a mobile POS, I strongly recommend a front end optimization assessment to understand how all of the service solutions will work together (POS, Self-checkout, Kiosks, mobile POS, Customer Service Desk, etc) to ensure maximum customer throughput, an optimized customer experience, and a cost effective implementation.

Consider the potential benefits of a mobile POS unit:

  • Small form factor
  • Built in scanning capability
  • Print receipt to small mobile printer/ remote printer / email
  • MSR credit card swipe
  • Wifi connection
  • Battery power
  • Retail hardened (depending on the platform)
Now consider the tradeoffs of a mobile POS unit:
  • Small form factor items can be lost =security risk to network, and cost of lost units.
  • Connecting to remote devices like printers and scanners can be tricky over the long haul – but the technology is improving.
  • In Canada, NFC and EMV cards won’t work as MSR swipes are only available.  Vendors says an EMV model is in the works.
  • Accepting cash would require significant trust and could be a security and shrink risk.
  • Wireless connections can be challenging in retail and are prone to security risks.
  • Batteries need to be recharged.  It will be necessary to have a charging station where all units must be returned at end of shift or end of day.
  • Even retail hardened items can break if dropped.
  • Retail staff (and clients) who are older or who have less than optimal eyesight often are challenged to read the text on a small screen.
  • Depending on the operational implementation, there may not be a counter to set down merchandise for folding or bagging.

As with everything else, the decision to leverage a mobile POS should be driven by a the specific retail business.  Mobile POS will evolve, but in my opinion, the items above indicate potential places where  leveraging a mobile POS in a retail environment would be particularly useful.

  • Simple Order taking with no Scanning Required (QSR)
  • Small  Basket Purchases where no weighable items or security tags are used.
  • Simple large customer assistance required orders in a DIY or GM environment – (bicycles, lawn tractors, etc.)
  • High traffic timeframes – sales, grand openings, holiday periods.

Given the excitement around mobile, expect many vendors to provide solutions and many retailers to try them.  I think it’s great and it is progress.  We could very well end up with all a high percentage of mobile POS down the road, but starting from the strength of a solution and expanding from that point provides the best roadmap to success.

2010.45 | What’s the difference between Wifi and Wireless?

I get asked this question on a regular basis: “What is the difference between Wifi and wireless connectivity?”.   The issue arises from a desire to make a solution ‘wireless’ for in-store portability.  The confusion arises as many technologies are wireless and that term is used interchangeably with many of them.

In very general terms wireless (most of my customers mean cellular) and wifi are the same thing in that they allow devices to connect to the Internet without a cable.  The functionality and end result is effectively the same.  The difference is in the method of connectivity.

Wifi is a terminology that refers to short range wireless connection to a wireline broadband connection. It is very much a cordless home telephone. The home cordless phone provides a short range wireless connection to a home landline connection.  A router, modem, or switch with wireless capability behaves in the same way by connecting a device with wifi capability wirelessly  to a wired broadband connection. You would use wifi at home, in an airport, or at Starbucks. There are a number of different connection speeds, anywhere from wireless b,wireless g, to wireless n. The connection speed of g or n is generally fast enough to take full advantage of most home broadband connection capability.  In order to access wifi you need permission from the owner of the wireless router to access their network connection. Users must be within range of the network to access it – usually not more than 10-20 meters without special equipment.

In retail, wifi may be used for short distance wireless connections such as wireless handheld devices for inventory, electronic shelf labels, wireless payment terminals in restaurants and wireless monitoring devices for self-checkouts.  The challenge is ensuring security and that any wireless networks can be certified for PCI and EMV.  Their can also be dead spots for the wifi connectivity depending on the layout of the store and materials used.  Concrete and steel check stands, pillars and the like can block or interfere with signal strength though this concern.

Wireless connectivity, while covering many technologies as mentioned generally refers to connecting devices using cellular technology. A cellular wireless device connects to cellular towers to provide internet connectivity. This is how Blackberry, iPhones and smart phones connect to the internet to get data.  (Most actually have wifi connectivity as well)  The most well known example in Canada is Rogers well named and marketed ‘rocket stick’.  This USB based device connects any compatible device to the internet via a 3G connection.  In order to access data from a wireless device over cellular you must subscribe to a cellular data plan either on a smartphone or with a rocket stick device. The only limitation on range on cellular data is the range of the cellular coverage. This means you can use a cellular data connection anywhere you can use a cell phone. While cellular has more range, the speed is not quite as fast as wifi and he speed of cellular data varies with the availability of 3G and 4G networks. In areas without 3G in Canada connections are generally via the older Edge network which provides data but at a much slower speed.


In retail, cellular connections are used on vending machines and kiosks so that third party devices can access the internet without requiring access to a host retailers network. Cellular is also a common backup connection for debit and credit processing in retailers in Canada to ensure electronic payments are still available in the event of primary connectivity failure.

In general, both options provide a savings over wired connections as they lower cost and complexity of installation.  Cellular is certainly gaining ground on the speed advantage of wifi, and is much better for portability.  No matter what technology is embraced in the future, it will probably be wireless.

2010.42 | Scanning Barcodes From a Mobile Screen

Misconceptions abound about scanning the screens of mobile devices.

There are a number of different ways of passing data from a mobile device to another platform in a store environment – 2D barcodes, Microsoft Tag, NFC, Bluetooth, and via Apps – the possiblities are quite broad and are dependent on the application.

Applications in a store environment most often involve passing loyalty or coupon information from a mobile device to a point of sale (POS).  The method that arises most in conversation is that which would seem most intuitive to the general population.  Can one scan a barcode from the screen of a mobile phone with a scanner at the point of sale?

The answer: it depends.  Consider the following examples:

Example 1: A customer approaches a Point of Sale in a store with an Apple iPhone.  The customer has scanned an image of their loyalty card into their phone complete with a traditional linear barcode from the back of the physical loyalty card.  The cashier has a Handheld Scanner at the POS and attempts to scan the customer’s screen to enter their loyalty information into the system…  It won’t work.   A traditional handheld or even bioptic scanner will not reliably capture a barcode from the screen of a regular mobile device’s screen.   I have personally attempted it many times, in many retail situations with various scanners and mobile devices and screens in stores and in lab environments.  The screen is too reflective or does not pick up the contrast in the bars and spaces, no matter how large or bright the image may be.  (It may give a positive scan once in a while, but not consistently.) I’ve heard that some iPhone apps get around that by showing the images in certain ways, but I’ve never seen it work live or via any online searching.

Example 2: A customer approaches the boarding gate at an airline terminal with a Blackberry Torch.  The customer has downloaded an electronic boarding pass to their phone complete with a 2d barcode.  The boarding agent has a Handheld Scanner with a 2d Imager built into it.  The customer holds out their device, and the agent scans it with the imager.  It will work.   In this instance, though the situation appears exactly the same as the first example, the big difference is the the use of the 2d Imager and 2d barcode.  A 2d Imager is essentially a camera – better suited to identifying the 2d barcode on the mobile device.

The implication of the formulas above is that the great majority of technology in place at current points of sale will not read barcodes from a mobile device.  Most retailers wishing to take advantage of barcode reading from mobile devices will need to invest in new scanning devices.

NOTE:  The imager will also read a 1D traditional barcode from the mobile screen.  The barcode does not have to be a 2D barcode.

2010.36 | Point of Sale Ports and Connectivity

I spend a lot of time looking at cables, and it’s just as glamorous as it sounds.  The recent history of retail technology involves hundreds if not thousands of vendors, thousands of peripherals, countless drivers, OPOS, JavaPOS, and endless point of sale (POS) software solutions with their own ways of interfacing to those peripherals.  It’s not surprising that so much time has to be spent in pondering the connectivity to be used for any point of sale solution.   There are a number of options: USB, Powered USB (12V or 24V), Serial (powered or non-powered), Parallel, PS/2, VGA, DVI and more.  When you consider that there can be anywhere from 1 to 12 or even 15 peripherals depending on the POS application, it becomes clear that some careful thought and planning is required.

When configuring systems with customers and partners, there are a number of points we need to discuss that factor into peripheral connectivity decisions.  Consider the following items when laying out the best options for peripheral connectivity for a POS system:

Operating System – Legacy software is particularly rampant in retail.  Some customers still use MS-DOS (it’s still here and there).  Some customers use Linux.  There is still widespread use of IBM OS4690 OS.  Drivers for peripherals on older platforms like MS-DOS or newer ones like Linux aren’t necessarily as widespread as those for Windows, which can limit the options.  It wasn’t until Windows 2000 or so that Windows based OS systems were able to deal reasonably well with USB.    Right out of the gate, any USB connectivity could be written off, forcing choices towards the route of serial, parallel, or other legacy interfaces.

Point of Sale Software – As customers move to Windows 7, the OS becomes less of a factor, but the point of sale software can also influence the decision for connectivity.  If point of sale software code is able to run on newer Operating Systems with minimal costs to upgrade, retailers may avoid any unnecessary costs and stick with that software.   This means that the point of sale software may still require connections via serial and parallel, even though the operating system can handle other options.  Now consider the fact that like most reasonable people, retailers prefer to make incremental changes to their environment in order to allow for troubleshooting of potential issues.   This means that most retailers prefer to upgrade hardware and software separately.   In this instance, the new POS hardware platform will need to work with a legacy platform, as well as a new POS platform.   Once again, newer interfaces such as Powered USB may not be leveraged.

POS Usage – There are as many kinds of POS and peripherals as there are retail businesses.  Even within those businesses, there are groups that have specific needs that will impact the POS decision.  Grocers may have dozens of standard POS at the front of a store with Scanner/Scale, Pinpad, Customer Display, Keyboard/Clerk Display, Printer and Cash Drawer.  However, they will have units in Deli, Floral, Cosmetics, or even a Manager’s Back Office Workstation that will have different requirements and thus different peripherals.  Any decision has to consider the total business.  Ideally there will be one platform that can leverage all of the different peripherals across the different business uses for the systems.

Peripheral Type – Peripherals come in all types and flavours.  The vendors need to make their units as usable as possible for as many platforms as possible, but in some cases, the peripheral that is favoured by a business unit may only have one connection option.  If the peripheral is that important, it may be necessary to leave room for it, or if the space is not available, an alternative may have to be considered.  This is further complicated by the fact that most retailers will have various platforms in place at any one time, so that some sites may have ports for upgrades and some may not.

Power – Over time, the number of peripherals can grow, as new payment options come on board (contactless payments), or if a business moves in a new direction (many retailers selling groceries that have to install scanner/scales).  It is important to consider power requirements at the POS as these changes take place.  Using legacy connections can mean more power requirements in the way of additional power outlets, or at the very least, the addition of a larger UPS system.  Moving to Powered USB or at least Powered Serial can minimize these requirements and potentially save some serious costs that would be incurred for electrical changes in the store.

Future Expandability – Needs change over time, and who is to say what the peripheral of tomorrow may be?  RFID item scanner? Cameras?  2d Imagers? Some new EAS system?  Any ports discussion needs to consider future expandability.  For a small cost, additional vacant ports can be included as part of the solution that will leave room for future projects without having to scrap a POS system or holding up the deployment of a key initiative.

There are no simple answers in evaluating retail peripheral connectivity.  Each situation is unique, though the items above should provide some direction.  The most important thing is to have a plan.  If at all possible, map out each platform and how peripherals are used currently.  This will allow for quick responses to business needs when new projects arise, and will allow for a simple reference when the time comes for upgrades and for future planning.  I generally suggest moving to Powered USB as much as all of the factors above will allow.  Based on the realities of retail platforms, I think that will happen, but it will take time.

2010.27 | Queue Busting at POS

I’ve had various queries as of late around queue busting.   The general concern I’ve heard from local Canadian retailers is particularly around stores with small footprints that experience much higher traffic during a tourist season.  There may only be 2-3 lanes in some rural / small town sites, which are unable to handle the load over the busy summer months.  The people in those stores are looking for relief in the ability to handle more customers, but there is little or no additional space for additional point of sale or staff.

Queue busting is a valid option.  Traditionally queue busting has meant the use of a (relatively) small handheld device by a store staffer to scan all of the items in a customer’s basket, suspend the transaction, and the customer would then pay the regular cashier as they followed through the queue.  The idea is that using these handheld scanning devices would shorten the time spent by customers at the point of sale.  Let’s consider potential issues that need to be addressed by such a solution in a grocery environment:

  • Basket size – A queue busting solution could work well in a small basket size situation – say up to 8 items at the very most.  Unless there is special bagging area established in front of the register, and items are placed into bags, there is a high probability of items being missed, or scanned twice, which will hamper throughput and lower customer satisfaction.  A handheld solution is probably cumbersome for sites that have larger basket sizes, or queues other than an express lane.
  • Scanning Power – Wireless handheld scanners that are connected to the back end do not scan easily.  The technology has certainly improved over the years, but has not come close to the ability of bioptic scanners or even handheld units connected to a POS for speed.  There is greater effort required to orient the products to ensure a correct scan.  This will slow the queue a bit, but may be a valid tradeoff over waiting in line reading the tabloids.
  • Weighed Items – If a customer has produce that needs to be weighed to calculate the price, they cannot be accommodated by a handheld device.
  • Receipts – Need to ensure the handheld can print a receipt.
  • Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS)–  If a customer has an item like a pharmacy item or an item from the meat counter, there is no way to deactivate the security tags with the handheld unit.
  • Coupons – In Canada, most coupons are not scannable, and need to be entered manually.  This would be cumberson on a handheld device which is primarily a scanner and not a data entry platform, and could p0tentially require integration into the POS platform beyond the standard scan and suspend requirement of a queue busting platform.  Coupons are not used as much in Canada, so this may not be a fundamental problem.
  • Loyalty – Customers will expect that they can use their loyalty card can be scanned as normal, and this should be accommodated as normal.  It shouldn’t be a problem with the handheld.
  • Queueing– It is important to consider the operational aspects of a queue busting solution.  Will the attendant have an extra basket or cart to which they move unscanned items into after they are scanned?  This will require additional space.  Customers are accustomed to queuing in certain ways in stores, and any adjustments will have to be simple and made clear to the current clientele to avoid impact on the current queueing structure. 
  • Shrink – If a store associate scans items and then passes the customer on to the clerk accepting payment, it will be important to watch customers to ensure that items are not added to the basket or swapped out after the scan. 
  • Tender Time and Throughput– Consider that tendering is the longest component of any transaction.  Now consider that every tender must be handled by the person in each lane with the most powerful scanner and flexibility on the POS.  The fastest scanners would not be used on every transaction – only some of them.  Will this really speed the queues?

I would suggest that a few other options are likely to provide a better outcome by simplifying the process, and eliminating some of the issues presented above:

  1. Full Function Handheld POS – A number of devices are now available that can scan as well as accept payment.  For a smaller retailer, an iPhone touch or iPhone could be used, though EMV is an issue.  For larger retailers, this Motorola unit has an option for an EMV payment device to clip on to the handheld to accept payments directly on the device.  The user can even flip the unit towards the user without having to let go of the device.  Using payment directly on the unit can avoid shrink problems between the scan and payment, and avoids users having to go to a second queue.  Weighed items and EAS are still an issue.
  2. Small Footprint POS – POS manufacturers such as the one I work for generally have smaller footprint hardware platforms.  There is the potential to place a complete POS platform on a power cart to add additional lanes in the store in a very small footprint.  This would eliminate the weighed item and EAS issues, and could simplify queues, but does require a bit more space.
  3. Small Footprint Selfcheckout – Self-checkout platforms are getting smaller, particularly those that accept debit and credit payments only.  Give the high usage and adoption of electronic payment in Canada, a small selfcheckout unit could provide 3-4 checkouts in place of one.  With a bit more space, full payment options are an option as well.

2010.17 | Upgrade Your POS Peripherals

used under creative commons from freefoto.comI was surprised to hear this week that Sony will be discontinuing the production of floppy disks.  Surprised because I haven’t bought floppy disks since Nirvana was topping the charts, and yet, someone, somewhere was obviously still getting some use from floppy disks, or they wouldn’t be selling them.

This idea of obsolescence tied in with a number of initiatives I worked on this week.  With every penny scrutinized, minimizing spend on unnecessary items is the rule of the day.  My experience has dictated that the challenge is identifying “unnecessary items”.

In years past, I’ve seen retailers cut costs by upgrading only the processor or the point of sale device itself, and opt to keep the old peripherals.  This is particularly common in franchise based situations, and I can understand it – it seems like a waste to discard a printer, keyboard or LCD that may have good mileage on it, and, more importantly, the cost comes out of their own pockets.   The benefit of experience has dictated to me that the savings of not replacing or upgrading peripherals as part of solution refreshes has a few unintended results:

  • Peripherals take most of the wear and tear in a retail environment, and even on a service agreement, will fail more than the POS unit itself.  Not replacing the peripherals means that reductions in service calls on new equipment are not as pronounced as with an entirely new system.

Result: increased system downtime and increased customer (and staff) inconvenience as aged peripherals fail.

  • Most retailers utilize their point of sale equipment for 7-10 years.  Peripherals will not stand up for 14-20 years without replacement, so they will have to be replaced before the POS end of life.

Result: Higher costs in the long run with missed savings on a decreased discount on a partial purchase, and a return visit and costs for peripheral installation.

  • Screen and printer technology have come a long way in the last 10 years and older solutions stick out.  Remember CRTs?  Remember tiny Monochrome LCD’s?  When you see ancient equipment in a retail environment, it leaves a negative impression of the organization.

Result: Aging infrastructure leaves a negative impression of your business and a missed opportunity to reduce energy usage with progress on items like 80 Plus power supplies

  • New features are often available in peripherals that are not leveraged.  Often no time is made by busy organizations to tweak software, settings or drivers.  New interfaces like powered USB reduce the need for power adapters under the counter are an example of technology that tends to be overlooked because of legacy environments.

Result: While organizations are able to leverage homogeneity across their platform base for support purposes, they are unable to take advantage of new technology until the current base is so old that major change are required.  This drives extra development effort and cost for updating the POS solution all at once, along with all of the pain involved in major shifts, instead of small incremental changes over time.  It also means lost opportunities for enhanced functionality and cost savings that could result from upgraded or entirely new peripherals.

While the ongoing drive for cost savings, the persistent resistance to change and unrelenting workloads drive all organizations to avoid change, I encourage any organization to consider the incremental benefits of slight changes to their systems over time.  A little pain now to change will certainly drive greater benefit in the long run.

2010.09 | Electronic Shelf Labels


Changing prices of products on a continuous basis is a necessity in a retail environment, and is particularly time consuming in a grocery environment with thousands of different items stocked on the shelves, and thousands of potential price savings every week.  Canadian retailers also have a code of practice where retailers pay reparation to consumers in the case of mislabeled items, so retailers have a tremendous incentive to ensure that prices are up to date and synchronized with the in store database.

Given the hours of labour involved in keeping all of these prices up to date and accurate, it’s not surprising that retailers and vendors alike look to technology in an attempt to reduce the burden of labour and cost. 

Electronic Shelf Labels (ESLs) are one of the solutions that have come in and out of favour over the past decade or so.  Given the continuous reduction in the cost of electronic components and computing power, re-visiting the potential of ESLs today is a credible exercise.

In order to assess the potential value, let’s consider a few points around the potential value of this technology in a retail environment.

Reduction in Store Labour – Using an electronic system avoids the necessity of store staff walking the aisles and changing the labels on store shelves.  Retailers I’ve dealt with have the labels sent to the store from a central location, and walk the aisles to change the labels – I know some have 1-2 people doing this for 1-2 days per week.  Assuming the system is working correctly, a very significant labour effort is removed from the store.  A very large potential savings to be sure, but the entire effort is not removed from the mix, as displays are changed often, and the product to be displayed on the label must still be changed. 

Accuracy – Assuming the price database in the store is accurate, the potential exists for improvements in price accuracy, as the necessity of placing labels on shelves each week is removed.  Assuming that no changes are made to the store layout, the potential for error is reduced.  The reality is that in many environments, displays, end caps, and various shelf planograms change relatively often as products are added and removed from a store database.  While the tag can be directly linked to the price database at the back end of the store, the tag can be moved in front of the incorrect product, or the battery could die, leaving no display at all.  In order for this solution to operate correctly, it is very important that the processes are carefully established, and that the tags provide for two-way communication, to ensure that the tag can communicate back to dashboard in the back office indicating that the pricing that shows in the database matches the price on the tag for a certain UPC.  In implementing a system such as this, it will also be important to ensure operational systems are in place to ensure someone takes a sober second look at pricing.   While placing labels can be time intensive, it also provides a sober second look that may not occur via an electronic refresh.  It may seem obvious to someone placing a label on a shelf that grapes should be $10.99 and not $1.09, but the system may not notice.

Time Sensitive Offers – One of the potential benefits of using these tags is being able to provide time sensitive pricing.  Special pricing can be available during certain days or hours of the week.  While technically this is possible, it can bring about some unforeseen logistical challenges in a retail environment – particularly grocery.  Imagine that a customer picks up an item identified at a price of $1.99 at 10.45 am, and the price changes to $2.99 at 11.00 am.  The customer checks out at 11.15 am.  Instead of being charged an expected $1.99, they will be charged $2.99.  Even if we get by the law that says tags have to match the price displayed, the customers are likely to respond badly, and store staff are left in an awkward position which will discourage them from using such pricing schemes.

Sustainability – Everyone is doing their best to reduce their environmental footprint in today’s world.  The potential of ESLs is to remove the ongoing replacement of paper labels throughout the store, which is very positive.  The upside of this remains to be seen however, given the thousands of electronic devices (tags) that would need to be put in place in a retail environment.   Each of these has a battery and electronic components that are more difficult to recycle than the paper tags currently used, and it may also use more electricity as a whole.  While this would have to be assessed individually, it would seem that paper has the leg up here, though all of the printing that takes place may offset this.

Initial and Ongoing Costs – One of the greatest challenges of these implementations is the cost.  Many of them are not obvious until an on-site testing scenario takes place.  While the cost of tags has inevitably decreased over the years, given improvements in battery technology and economies of scale, there is still a significant startup cost with thousands of tags required at the outset.  There will also be an effort to get all of the tags programmed with the correct UPCs, and the installation costs, which may also require changes to shelving and tag mounts in the stores.  There is also the cost and effort of validating that all tags are working with the wireless network, and interfacing with the program to validate prices correctly required at every store.      From an ongoing perspective, the costs appear very low at first glance, but it is important to consider that there will be replacement costs for tags that are stolen or damaged, or just quit working.  The percentage of failed tags can vary, and technology has improved the life and durability of the tags, but the reality of the retail environment is such that a percentage of tags will need to be replaced every year.  These costs will have to be carefully compared to the cost of current practices.

Technical Issues – Once again, wireless and display technology have improved from a technical and cost perspective since these systems were first released, but problems can still occur.  Dead spots in the store may exist if wireless coverage is not wide enough, allowing updates to be missed by some tags and at least requiring intervention from store staff.  Tags that are placed in challenging environmental conditions such as freezers will be more expensive or fail more often, requiring staff attention.  While tags can now be much larger, it is likely that not all signage will be replaced by the digital solution, meaning staff will have to manage two platforms.  Extra tags will need to be kept on site to accommodate failed tags.  If there is a failure of the wireless system, or the software program to update the tags, the tags will be frozen at one price, and not updatable.  All of these issues can be overcome, but require processes, and costs to be considered.

I’ve seen fewer of these solutions in recent years than in the past, but perhaps ESL’s will be revived with updated technology.  In the interim, I wouldn’t be surprised to see other potential solutions considered.  Why not a handheld unit with a portable printer that provides a list of UPCs to be changed?  The user walks the store in order, scans the UPC in question to show they are there, and a tag is printed on the spot. 

Every retail environment is different, and while technically the solution is feasible, like any technical solution, there are quite a number of logistical and operational issues that need to be overcome.  There is certainly opportunity for savings.

2010.03 | Touchscreen or Keyboard?

The iPhone versus Blackberry debate brings out many strong opinions around the best interface for a mobile device.  Many business users rely heavily on a keyboard, and love Blackberry for it.  iPhone users have become accustomed to the less tactile, but very flexible input option of the touch screen.  What it truly comes down to is the use to which one puts the device.  If a great deal of text input is required, a keyboard is usually optimal.  For interactions that go beyond text input, a touchscreen has many unique benefits.

This same discussion has arisen many times with respect to self service solutions in a real life retail environment and the best interface depends on the solution.  Experience dictates that in many (not all) self service situations, a touch screen is a better option.  While the decision needs to be made based on the application and its intended audience, there are a number of valid reasons to utilize a touch screen keyboard instead of a phyical keyboard, including:

  • Cost Effectiveness – Additional acquisition and maintenance costs for physical keyboards are avoided with the use of touch.  Ruggedized keyboards necessary for self service can be costly with diaphragms built in for spillage and dirt and are composed of many moving parts.  Moving parts are the most likely to fail – particularly in a retail situation.  Given the size and scope of self service deployments, these cost savings can be significant.
  • Usability – An onscreen keyboard can simplify user interaction as it keeps the clients eyes in one place – on the screen.  As most kiosks are touch screen based, it is generally more intunitive to users to have one interface point – the touch screen.
  • Multi-Language Capability – Given increasing globalization, and regional language requirements as in Quebec, using on screen keyboards allows them to be adjusted by user.  Choosing a different language in the application provides another keyboard – a facility impossible with a standard hardware based keyboard.
  • Interface Flexibility – An onscreen keyboard provides the ability to customize a keyboard to suit the purpose of the application.  For example, if an entry requires only numbers, a number pad only can be shown on the screen, or if the application is searching a directory, non-relevant keys can be set as inactive, and relevant keys can be highlighted.
  • Interface Customization – A touchscreen keyboard can be changed to match the application and branding of the kiosk and can even by adjusted by banner.
  • Increased Uptime – Adding peripherals like keyboards to a system increases the potential for system failure. Keyboards can be broken, lose keys, are often spilled upon in consumer facing environments.
  • Responsiveness – The current iterations of touchscreen technology and fast processors mean a far more responsive product than in the past that is as responsive as a physical keyboard for minimal data entry. Take the increased usage of the iPhone with its touch interface as a confirmation of increased customer comfort with this interface.
  • Security – A touchscreen keyboard decreases security effort and risks by removing the need to lock down system based keyboard combinations like Ctrl-Esc and Ctrl-ALT-Del.
  • Customer Perception – Avoiding a physical keyboard provides a streamlined look for a kiosk solution – it looks like an interactive kiosk and not a PC. A kiosk is more novel and engaging to most consumers than a PC. They want to see what it does. Watch them in a store.
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