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Perfect Touch

BY Deena Amato-mccoy

As consumers’ lives grow increasingly busy, many are demanding that their favorite retailers provide self-service solutions that can streamline and guide their shopping experience. And they want these technologies available both in-store and at home. Here are three retailers that are taking advantage of interactive technologies.

AT&T: Eighty-six percent of U.S.- and Canadian-based consumers said they are more likely to do business with companies that offer self-service, according to “The Self-Service Revolution Is Real” study, from NCR, Dayton, Ohio, and BuzzBack Market Research, New York City.

But simply providing kiosks and store-level Web access is not enough. AT&T, San Antonio, is responding with an exciting new solution from Microsoft, called Surface.

The chain unveiled Surface, a touchscreen table that delivers merchandise information to shoppers, in April.

“Our product portfolio can be overwhelming and complex, and we want our shoppers to make an informed purchase decision,” said Andy Austin, director of retailer customer experience, AT&T.

Unit information is stored in a database at corporate, and details are pushed to Surface. As shoppers place a featured phone or PDA on the table, an embedded optical tag interacts with customized Microsoft software. Surface then pulls up product-specific details—in the form of electronic documents—that help the user make an informed purchase. Users can research unit functionality, voice and data plans, accessories and coverage regions.

Shoppers use their fingertips to open and slide electronic documents across the table.

Currently, five stores feature a total of 22 Surface tables. Each unit features a combination of eight phones and PDAs.

AT&T plans to program the interactive tables to recognize a shopper’s personal device. “Next year, every AT&T phone will be equipped with software that Surface will recognize,” he said. “If I put my phone on the table, it will ask Andy if he wants a demo and explain the best details I need to make a purchase.” AT&T also plans to let individual stores update their Surface tables from a local level.

Staples Business Depot: What do you call a kiosk that gives shoppers access to a live service agent? Staples Business Depot calls it VIDEO AGENT—a secret weapon that provides consistent, knowledgeable service in Staples’ specialty departments.

Staples Business Depot, Richmond Hill, Ontario, is dedicated to providing “exceptional service and quality,” said James Pelrine, the company’s blackbelt designate, lean six-sigma process (former manager of process improvement).

Yet, Staples was challenged by how to quicken service in specialty departments. For example, creating a business card in Staples’ “Copy and Print Centre” is a time-consuming process.

“Associates help shoppers look through books to pick out a style, then they manually draw examples,” Pelrine said, while “other people are waiting for assistance.”

Free-hand drawings are faxed over to Staples’ third-party vendor, which creates a proof and faxes it back to Staples for customer approval. The entire process, from creation to customers picking up the order, could take seven to 14 days.

Ready to change the process, Pelrine scanned the EXPO floor at the 2006 NRF Convention in New York City. There he found a kiosk from Experticity, Seattle.

However, this was not just any kiosk. This touchscreen unit also supports a flat-screen monitor. Experticity’s customized software connects users to a live customer-service agent who can provide support in real time.

The units, supported by Staples’ high-speed DSL network, invite shoppers to begin their experience through the touchscreen monitor. In seconds, they are connected to a live agent who can guide them through a project, order merchandise, or answer product or pricing questions. It can also be customized to link users to agents that meet users’ specific language requirements or category expertise. (All agents reside at Staples’ Richmond Hill, Ontario-based corporate office.)

Following NRF, Staples tested the units in electronics, networking and ink departments across its Nova Scotia-based stores. While the new solution met some resistance from shoppers, “We still had good results,” Pelrine said. “So we decided to move it to stores in metro regions where it could get a stronger reception.”

Ultimately, the units found a home in the Copy and Print department. Here, they help shoppers create presentations, calendars or business cards—the department’s most requested item.

“The agent talks users through the process, and even delivers templates and proofs to the user screen,” he explained. “They can also input their own logos via a CD drive, a thumb-drive reader or they can scan a hard copy on an embedded flat-bed scanner.” Now it takes 15 minutes to create a design, and business cards are produced within 48 hours.

Thirty-four stores across Alberta feature a unit, and six service agents are on call “an hour after the store opens until an hour prior to closing,” he added.

Besides contributing to stronger store sales, the units are also lessening the impact of a severe labor shortage in the area. “It is hard to hire a qualified store associate. It is even harder hiring one that is technically inclined or who can manage a specialized environment like our Print and Copy Centre,” Pelrine said.

“The units also help us with in-store training,” he said. “It is not uncommon for store associates to use the units to access an agent to answer questions when helping shoppers.”

Pelrine expects to see a return on investment within six months, and hopes to roll out the units to additional provinces and new store departments.

D’Agostino Supermarkets: Building on the idea that shopping lists begin in the kitchen, not at the computer, D’Agostino Supermarkets, Larchmont, N.Y., is introducing shoppers to the newest kitchen appliance that promises to alter home shopping.

D’Agostino is no stranger to home delivery. Last month, the neighborhood grocer added one more replenishment option. Powered by a Wi-Fi-enabled appliance from Ikan Technologies, Stamford, Conn., the newest program enables shoppers to scan merchandise at home and upload electronic shopping lists to their favorite store for replenishment.

“The Wi-Fi network transmits the item description, GTIN number and quantity to an electronic shopping list,” Bill Adams, CTO, Ikan, said during a demonstration at a Manhattan D’Agostino’s store in May.

Once the list is complete and reviewed by the shopper, they input their preferred D’Agostino location and delivery time, and place the order directly through the unit. D’Agostino uploads orders every 10 minutes. Merchandise is picked directly in the store, and prepared for delivery.

The first 100 interested shoppers can purchase the unit for $99. (It typically retails for $399.) At presstime, about six shoppers had purchased the units.  

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Michaels comps down for the quarter

BY CSA STAFF

IRVING, Texas Michaels Stores reported that total sales for the quarter were $847 million, a 1% increase from fiscal 2007 first quarter sales of $839 million. Same-store sales for the comparable 13-week period decreased 2.9%.

Ceo, Brian Cornell, said, “While our overall comps for the first quarter declined 2.9%, we were very encouraged with the sales of our kids and specialty craft categories, scrapbooking and frame and art supplies. Sales in April showed a reversal of trend with same-store sales up 3.1% on a strong increase in transactions. This positive sales and transaction performance gives us confidence that our new marketing and merchandising programs are connecting with our Michaels customers.”

For fiscal 2008, the company expects same-store sales growth  to be approximately flat given the current economic environment.

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Kirkland’s 1Q sales up 2.1%

BY CSA STAFF

JACKSON, Tenn. Kirkland’s reported that net sales for the first quarter ended May 3 increased 2.1% to $84.1 million from $82.3 million for the first quarter ended May 5, 2007. Comparable-store sales for the first quarter of fiscal 2008 increased 4.3% compared with an 18.8% comparable-stores sales decrease in the first quarter of fiscal 2007.

The company reported a net loss of $2.6 million, or 13 cents per diluted share, for the 13-week period ended May 3, 2008, compared with a net loss of $7.5 million, or 38 cents per diluted share, in the 13-week period ended May 5, 2007.

Robert Alderson, Kirkland’s president and ceo, said, “The first quarter results reflect strong merchandising execution and the benefits of aggressive financial initiatives that have reduced our operating costs, improved cash flow and strengthened our liquidity. During the quarter, we experienced improved customer conversions as shoppers have reacted very favorably to our merchandise mix. The positive comparable-store sales and trimming of unproductive stores led to leveraging of occupancy and distribution costs. Combined with an improvement in merchandise margin and a year-over-year reduction in operating costs of almost $5 million, we were able to post a significant improvement in our pre-tax results.

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