Mobile Technology:
Internal Applications' Not-So-Hidden Impact

By Adam Blair, Executive Editor • November 17, 2015

Unlike earlier retail industry disruptors, like the 1970s debut of UPC codes and e-Commerce's growth in the 1990s, the mobile revolution was spearheaded not by retailers but by consumer technology advances. Perhaps that's why customer-facing mobile initiatives continue to soak up so much of the industry's attention.

But for retailers, mobile use cases for their internal staff — store associates, managers and executives higher up in the organization — may ultimately have an even greater impact on these organizations' operations, and their ability to provide a superior customer experience.

Take the often-heard complaint that customers enter brick-and-mortar stores better-informed about products, prices and promotions than the associates themselves. Equipping staff members with mobile devices linked to key internal applications and databases gives retailers the opportunity to do more than just "level the playing field." They can make personalization scalable, move clienteling beyond the precincts of luxury retailers and perform "save the sale" rescues on a regular basis.

Internal applications can also streamline store operations by "mobilizing" workforce management (WFM), task management and communications. For managers, tablet-based dashboards can keep them abreast of KPIs and fast-changing conditions while allowing them to stay on the store floor and in front of customers.

Different mobile solutions will have the biggest impact in different retail verticals. "For purchases where a significant amount of pre-purchase investigation goes on (TVs, furniture), retailers see tremendous opportunities for mobile to make their employees great in front of the customer," said Paula Rosenblum and Steve Rowen in the January 2015 RSR report titled: Mobile Retail Finds New Purpose. For purchases that are "impulsive or survival based (food, fashion) the real advantage is on the behind-the-scenes work — not in dealing with complex customer questions."

Resistance Remains

Despite these opportunities, many retailers remain skeptical about investing in internal mobile applications. For some, the costs of upgrading store networks and providing sufficient Wi-Fi coverage are stumbling blocks, though most industry experts agree that customer expectations will soon make such in-store support a requirement rather than a nice-to-have option.

More than half (56.3%) of retailers that responded to a May 2015 study conducted by Empower Software Solutions said they have no plans to equip their associates with mobile devices. Two-thirds of respondents said they don't want their employees to be distracted, or even to be perceived as being distracted/unapproachable, by checking their personal email or social media accounts while they are working, and 65.2% don't want employees looking down at a mobile device while they interact with customers.

Enhancing Customer Service

Those retailers that have embraced mobile for employees, however, report that the benefits far outweigh any potential drawbacks. Lowe's Home Improvement dove into mobile four years ago, and it now has equipped associates in all its U.S. and Canada stores with a total of 54,000 iOS devices and 3,500 iPad Minis running a number of internally developed apps.

"Associate usage of these devices is up; I don't have to preach adoption," said Jay Deaton, Director of Operation Support, Mobility and Information Services at Lowe's. "It saves them time and allows them to be more educated about our products."

Associates entering an item number can pull up product images and descriptions and get its location within the store, the current price and the number of units in both their store and nearby locations. "At the tap of a button they can also access ratings, reviews and information such as how large a room a heater can warm up; there's a lot of rich product content," said Deaton.

When associates aren't helping customers, they can switch the devices to operational tasks such as product ordering, inventory or printing labels. Lowe's provides tablets to store managers and others higher up in the organization, including the vice president of store operations.

"We see it as enhancing the customer experience, connecting associates with customers and bridging the store and digital channels," said Deaton. "We made a point to research what our associates' needs were and where the gaps were operationally, and to build mobile's capabilities to address them."

For luxury and other "high-touch" retailers, mobile technology enhances their ability to personalize interactions with customers via clienteling applications. An associate's ability to call up customers' purchase histories, overall value to the retailer, personal data and product preferences make for a powerful combination.

For these retailers, "The information had always been available to do personalization and real-time communications, but they haven't had the ability to act on it effectively," said Sheryl Kingstone, Director of Research at 451 Research. "That's where mobile has really changed the game — we not only know who the customer is, but that information is at our fingertips."

Streamlining Store Operations

As mobile technology has advanced, its capabilities have multiplied. Many retailers are finding that solutions designed for customer service are also addressing their store operations challenges.

Barneys New York was honored with a 2015 Retail TouchPoints Store Operations Superstar Award for its use of iPods and Mi9 Merchant to manage shipping, receiving, status changes and inventory movements within its stores. The devices enable associates to track and record inventory movements directly into Barneys' corporate merchandising system, making centralized inventory updates timelier as the system updates the database in real time. The iPods are fitted with barcode scanners and have streamlined receiving and improved overall inventory accuracy.

At The Container Store, mobile also provides both customer-facing and operational benefits. The retailer has deployed a mobile solution from Theatro, with credit card-sized devices that clip to belts or pockets and connect to earpieces. The technology, currently in seven of the retailer's 77 stores, "replaces the 60-year-old technology of walkie-talkies," said VP of Store Systems and Business Development John Thrailkill.

The devices have voice-based product lookup capabilities, allowing associates to recite a SKU number to learn how many of each item the store currently has in stock. "If the system says you have four total, and you're in front of a shelf with a customer and see four, you know they're all right there in front of you," explained Thrailkill. "This capability saves a tremendous amount of time that would be spent looking for inventory" in back rooms and other parts of the store. The system also can report the number of items held in nearby stores, allowing associates to provide accurate, real-time information to shoppers at their point of decision. "It helps that we have a very strong inventory culture in our stores, so we can count on those numbers being right," said Thrailkill.

The technology also provides location sensitivity, which helps managers locate where employees are at any given moment — a common challenge with big-box retailers. "We did a survey of our radio traffic, and about one-third of it consisted of people asking where other people are in the store," he noted.

Best of all for The Container Store, which strongly emphasizes customer service, is that the solution's use of earpieces and simple charm device controllers makes this a "heads-up" technology, rather than the "heads-down" style of a smartphone or tablet. "That means while the associate is with the customer, they can focus on the selling conversation," said Thrailkill. "We're trying to provide technology that's not just enabling the same things customers can look up on their own devices, but to give our associates better information and tools."

See John Thraikill's Discussion With Debbie Hauss At NRF 2014:

Thrailkill reveals how heads-up mobile technology empowers associates and helps enhance The Container Store's employee-first culture.

Operational benefits also come when managers have easier access to KPIs and other data. Sephora has deployed a mobile data visualization solution from Roambi to provide information about sales, total number of transactions, average dollar spend and store traffic. Stores are equipped with iPads used specifically for Roambi, allowing managers to be outside their offices while still accessing key information.

Accelerating WFM Adoption

A key part of operational success involves ensuring the right numbers of associates, with the right skills, are scheduled at any given time. Workforce management solutions address this need and many others, and mobility's key benefit here is in accelerating user acceptance.

"I love mobile for many reasons, but the number-one reason is its impact in the adoption of a new solution," said Scott Knaul, CEO, SMK Workforce Solutions. "Whenever you are trying to get an organization to buy in to this type of application, people ask 'What's in it for me?' With mobile, associates can swap shifts and receive alerts; they're pumped up because they can see their schedules on their phones, their accrual balances, when to come in and the number of hours they've worked.

"Mobile is key in this area because it's keeping up with how people get their information now — via their phones," Knaul added.

2015 Store Operations Superstars award winner Michael Kors was honored for its use of a mobile WFM solution that allows an estimated 5,000 employees to communicate with their colleagues, connect with the company and manage a healthy work-life balance.

Mobile could have even greater impacts in task management and execution management, though Knaul believes the technology, along with retailers' willingness to give up some traditional work methods, will need to change.

"Today, people basically put a PC platform onto a mobile device, but I'm waiting for some organizations to really take some leaps forward," said Knaul. "One way would be for associates to take pictures with a phone or tablet, or view pictures so they know exactly how a display is supposed to look. Another great usage would be in floor sets. It's amazing that there are still retailers printing out four-color copies of an 80-page document and mailing it to 1,000 stores, rather than sharing a floor set that's readable on a tablet."

See Debbie Hauss' Discussion With Scott Knaul At NRF 2014:

Knaul discusses the challenges retailers face in providing a consistent customer experience across hundreds (or thousands) of stores in a chain.

Perhaps the best argument for internal mobile use cases is that mobile devices are becoming — or have already become — the primary tool used by both customers and associates to interact with each other, and with the world of information. This development has profound implications for the future role of the store, according to RSR's Rosenblum and Rowen: "Put simply, mobile's greatest opportunity is to help return the store to relevance. No matter what a retailer's size, geography, clientele or product, they see mobile as how stores will understand shopper behavior, drive sales, and ultimately — build loyalty."