Mobile Devices a New Twist on Self-service for Retailers

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While I am generally a proponent of self-service technology, I'm not a big fan of self-service checkouts. They just don't do a good job of handling the myriad deviations from "standard" transactions that seem to occur at the supermarket, from coupons to eco-friendly cloth bags to unwieldy items that are tough to scan. Home improvement retailer Home Depot was heralded as a pioneer when it adopted self-service checkouts in 2002, but they were widely derided by customers. No surprise, really, given that so many items in a hardware store's inventory are going to be difficult to scan. Think rolls of insulation, lumber and bags of cement.


The chain seems to have come up with a better solution. Earlier this year, in writing about how Home Depot CFO Carol Tome had been tasked with leading a technology turnaround at the retailer, I cited a Businessweek article that mentioned a $60 million purchase of 40,000 handheld devices to replace outdated in-store computers.


It looks like that decision is paying off, judging by a Retail Info Systems News item that notes 30,000 First Phone multi-function mobile devices are averaging 100,000 mobile point-of-sale transactions per week, reducing checkout times and keeping customers out of long lines. The devices are a key part of an effort to offer "a faster, more friendly, more efficient checkout process for our customers," said Marvin Ellison, the company's EVP of U.S. Stores, during a recent conference call.


A Wall Street Journal article mentions some of the other uses for the devices, noting they work as inventory takers and walkie-talkies. So employees are free to roam stores assisting customers when not checking customers out with them. It offers an example of a salesman at a Texas Home Depot who was able to salvage a sale by using the device to quickly determine some out-of-stock items desired by a customer were available at another location and put those items on hold, all without ever leaving the customer.


I did a stint as a cashier in a department store during college. I used to get so frustrated on the occasions a customer would approach me for help. Often I'd want to walk them over and show them something but couldn't, as I was tethered to my register. Paging another employee for help was sometimes a frustrating waiting experience for the customer and for me, as I assured him or her that surely someone "was on their way."


I suspect they work great for helping customers check the price on random items that have migrated from displays or shelves. I often use the scanning stations provided for that purpose at Target, one of my favorite retailers.


Some stores are taking the concept and putting it squarely into the hands of customers. The WSJ describes devices in use at some Stop & Shop and Giant supermarkets. Located in carts, they let customers scan their items as they go. They then have the option of either paying at a self-checkout station or giving the device to a cashier to be rung up.


The devices also distribute coupons and other promotions as customers shop, a feature that has resulted in customers using the devices outspending other customers by about 10 percent. The article calls these kinds of devices "the logical next step" after self-checkouts. It also cites the example of mobile checkout stations at Apple stores that let customers use mobile tablets with card readers to check themselves out.


They may not remain the "next step" for long, however. Many industry observers think customers' own smartphones will eventually perform many of these same tasks. Ahold USA, owner of the Stop & Shop and Giant supermarket chains, is already testing a method that would allow customers to load scanning software directly into their iPhones.