Make Room for Mobile

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Due to the state of the economy, there has been increasing pressure to perfect the supply chain, putting a heavy focus on optimization. The demand for real-time movement updates is increasing the need for more reliable wireless and handheld devices that can keep chains abreast of inventory in-store, at the warehouse and even en route.

Associate Editor/Web Editor Samantha Murphy spoke with Brian Schulte, retail industry marketing director of Everett, Wash.-based Intermec, a provider of supply chain information systems, on how advancements in mobile technology are influencing the industry.

What business operations are retailers considering when evaluating mobile networks and handheld computers? 

Security is now a top priority when selecting a mobile computing solution. Some major retailers learned the hard way that wireless networks and customer credit-card data are vulnerable. That’s why it’s critical that retailers have the proper levels of security in both their handhelds and wireless networks to meet payment card industry standards to protect customers.

Meanwhile, retailers are heavily focusing on customer centricity to create the best shopping experience possible. It is necessary to find a cost-effective and efficient solution to manage the flow of inventory and information from the supplier to the point of sale to improve inventory visibility, lower operating costs and reduce out-of-stocks.

Mobile computers can help chains improve the shopping experience through various functions, including assisted selling and line-busting. They can also be used by managers to ensure that displays, signage and pricing are executed at the proper time during promotions.

What do retailers need to consider when making an upgrade? 

Retailers should specifically look at the various applications that they will be automating and how technologies can support them now and in the future.

For example, several voice and speech applications will be driving mobile technology in 2009. Voice/speech recognition and Voice-over IP based communications that support walkie-talkies, push-to-talk and phone capabilities, can improve employee productivity and accuracy, as well as customer service and response times.

Meanwhile, wireless capabilities allow retailers to access information in real time. This will play a role as more 2D barcodes are implemented in the retail industry. Handhelds will need the ability to read both 1D and 2D barcodes, and some can also capture images for processes like verification, or to document damaged inbound merchandise.

The ability to migrate to RFID with the same mobile computing system will cut future costs and training significantly.

Are there still roadblocks slowing the expansion of wireless devices? 

The main challenges primarily revolve around security and bandwidth. It’s critical to have the proper security in place, such as PCI compliance, to protect both retailer and customer information. Recent attacks on retailer wireless networks demonstrate how important it is for retailers to take the necessary steps to protect them.

Further, retailers need to make sure they have the bandwidth and capacity to deploy new systems before doing so. Without the proper bandwidth and support, a new system can become more of a detriment than a positive, resulting in frustration for both customers and employees. This can lead to lost customer loyalty, less-efficient store operations and employee turnover.

Where does the industry stand with RFID these days? 

To date, RFID deployment in the retail industry has been limited. However, an increasing number of retailers are piloting and experimenting with RFID systems in concept and trial stores. Many retailers are evaluating RFID technology implementations as a way to improve critical operations that impact productivity and customer service, such as the visibility of inventory and assets in their demand/supply chains.

Those that are evaluating or deploying RFID systems are partnering with consumer-goods suppliers. Retailers are first looking to specific product categories, such as apparel, where there is a strong return for their investment. Retailers are looking to a mix of fixed RFID readers [at POS, shelf systems, etc.] and mobile RFID systems. Mobile systems are seeing an increased interest due to their flexibility and, in some cases, the economy. They also are well-suited for uses such as counting inventory or locating misplaced, needed goods in a store or distribution center.

What modifications should retailers be making now and in the future to process these RFID labels, or is it still too soon? 

Retailers should take a look at how they can benefit from RFID in their operations by implementing pilots and evaluations. RFID does offer clear, distinct technical advantages that can enable greater automation, resulting in increased visibility and capability. It’s definitely not too soon to pilot and review opportunities for improvement in retailers’ business operations. Retailers doing so will have the knowledge and expertise to gain and maintain a competitive advantage.

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