Staying Competitive With Technology


Chris Horner is group manager, industry marketing, Sprint, Overland Park, Kan.,

Implementing the right technology remains key for retailers that want to stay one step ahead of the competition. Although many chains scaled back on IT investments as the recession took hold, savvy retailers are now evaluating new solutions in order to position themselves as industry leaders once the economy turns around.

Chain Store Age Web editor/associate editor Samantha Murphy spoke with Chris Horner, group manager of industry marketing for Overland Park, Kan.-based Sprint, about the state of IT and a few of the areas garnering the most interest: mobile and wireless communications.

What are retailers’ biggest technological and operational challenges? 

The main challenges are supply chain visibility, bringing their products to the customer at the right time and place, and squeezing costs out of their operations. Retailers need to know when an item is out of stock—or expected to arrive. And they need the answer now, on the store floor: Is it in stock on location? Is it on a truck en route to the store? Having this information in the palm of their hands, standing in front of their customer, is incredibly valuable.

How does Sprint help address these challenges? 

Our wireless technologies provide new opportunities for retailers to track their inventory and expand their geographic footprint. We also have one of the most dependable mobile broadband networks out there. The rapid expansion of our 4G services also takes this to a whole new level with video-streaming capabilities that can make the mobile kiosk much more than a transactional tool. (4G refers to the fourth generation of cellular wireless technology.)

With such attention on cutting costs, how have investments in new technology taken a hit across the industry? 

Even in times of economic turmoil, smart investments pay off. Retailers are indeed cutting back, but we’re also seeing that some companies are more willing to evaluate new technologies because they no longer have a choice—they must differentiate themselves from the competition or close the doors for good. Ironically, when things are going along well, there’s not a ton of incentive to implement new technologies.

How is Sprint’s focus different from its competitors’? 

Our suite of mobile solutions help retailers better manage their business more effectively with real-time access to critical information and people. Whether it’s Nextel Direct Connect, wireless kiosks, GPS solutions or applications focused on inventory management or customer relation management (CRM)—all of these ultimately aim to help the retailer ensure their customers are happy.

And it’s not all wireless—retailers are using multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) to create virtual private networks (VPNs) by combining voice, video and data services in a cost-efficient and dependable manner.

We also devote significant resources towards the industry and don’t pre-package products. The only way to provide solutions with positive return on investment is to ensure they are addressing the unique needs of the retailer.

How can retailers position themselves for an economic turnaround? 

Successful implementation of technology—especially new technology—requires planning and vision. Retailers need to be thinking about where they want to be years down the road and setting up their operations to accommodate those changes. This can also save them even more money today as they avoid making investments that will be obsolete two years later. At the same time, while it’s tough going into the CFO’s office to ask for resources, some technologies are so affordable and easy to implement that you can expect near-term positive ROI. That’s one of the great things about the implementation of wireless technologies. Finally, retailers need to maintain a near-maniacal focus on their customers. No amount of technology will be able to overcome the lasting damage of a poor customer experience.

Where do you see the most opportunity in retail solutions over the next five to 10 years? 

In addition to real-time supply chain visibility, the other area of clear opportunity is the mobile storefront. Retailers need to be able to offer their product wherever their customer is, and when they want or need that product. Mobile broadband lets retailers take the POS virtually anywhere. 4G is opening the door to new solutions and capabilities we’ve never dreamed of before—all without having to lay wire and establish a traditional storefront.

New applications will suddenly become feasible with 4G, ranging from security and monitoring to remote employee training and mobile advertising. Regardless of the economy, these are undoubtedly dynamic, exciting times.

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