Retailers are turning to mobile EPoS devices to reduce till queues and improve customer satisfaction. Joanna Perry finds out how they can increase efficiency on the shopfloor

At the end of a meal in a restaurant it’s normal to be presented with a wireless payment device. Yet this technology has been much slower to take off in the retail sphere, despite a number of high-profile deployments that have stood the test of time.

A global report on point of sale, published in February by Aberdeen Group, highlighted that long customer wait times at checkouts was the second biggest point-of-sale pressure facing retailers.

Aberdeen Group says that mobile EPoS should be considered as a technology that can improve the customer experience at the point of sale. However, the number one issue, as cited by almost half of those interviewed for the research, was complex and time-consuming point-of-sale processes. This is perhaps one reason why more retailers have not introduced mobile EPoS.

More than two years ago, Apple’s flagship London store on Regent Street tackled its out-the-door queues with the help of Fujitsu’s B-Pad mobile EPoS unit. The devices continue to keep crowds at bay in Apple’s store and prove that mobile devices can be useful all year round, rather than only being deployed to tackle queues at busy times of the year.

WHSmith has also deployed the B-Pad in its store at Heathrow Terminal 5. The devices have been loaded with a version of the system used to operate WHSmith’s fixed tills and can also be used for stock-checking, for which mobile devices are more popularly used. Staff can use them to process cash and card transactions in real-time on the shopfloor and provide a receipt using a small printer attached to their belts.

“We have all of the same functionality on the B-Pads as we do on our tills, so any staff who know how to use the tills can use a B-Pad,” says WHSmith head of development Simon Baker. “The fact that it is a Windows-based platform ensures greater flexibility and ease of use.”

WHSmith is testing the B-Pads in three different types of its stores and says it can see the benefits already. Baker says: “We’ve heard that our customers and staff like it and our store managers say that the B-Pad is very easy to pick up and enjoyable to use, because it’s light, robust and nice to hold and feel. It ticks every box in terms of usability and there’s nothing else quite like it.

“Following the implementation at Heathrow Terminal 5, we will evaluate the key learning points before deciding on the full roll-out plan.”

Because of the improved efficiency in stores, WHSmith expects to see a payback from the devices and wireless network in 18 months and that’s before additional sales are considered.

Onwards and upwards

And Baker isn’t stopping there. “Putting the technology in is just the beginning – there are definite opportunities to develop the software to do even more. There are lots of ideas already floating around about how we can streamline more processes and continue increasing staff efficiency with the B-Pad. In addition, when specifying a new store, we could now put in fewer fixed tills, which would free up more store space and save several thousands of pounds per till,” he says.

However, some retailers incorporate mobile devices into point of sale without altering the payment process.

Somerfield is working with Datalogic Scanning on a pilot of a queue-busting mobile scanning system. The system, called Pre-Scan, allows a member of staff to scan a customer’s shopping while they are in the checkout queue so that, by the time they reach the front, the information can be uploaded to the EPoS system and the transaction completed quickly.

Datalogic Scanning product manager Paul Duggan says that the traditional checkout process in a supermarket is labour-intensive, because of the multiple handling of products. Pre-Scan solves this problem without requiring changes to be made to the EPoS system, which Duggan says is one of the main factors in getting retailers interested in it.

Datalogic’s system uses a cordless scanner that connects to the normal fixed scanner at each checkout. Although Somerfield’s EPoS system is complex, the pre-scanning system doesn’t interfere with the EPoS software. It simply uses the existing integration between the fixed scanning device and EPoS software.

Duggan says: “A lot of the queues are snake-based, where you have a single snake of customers queuing up for all tills. Pre-scanning can help to move these people through faster.”

At the moment, the system allows one basket to be scanned and downloaded to the fixed scanner at a time. Duggan says that the software is being developed so that multiple baskets can be scanned using the same device, while customers are still in the queue. Customers will be given a token to identify their basket data, which the checkout assistant will scan to make sure that the correct information is downloaded.

Duggan says this alternative process is not right for all retail environments – in ultra-convenience formats, for instance – although he could see it being a success in some London stores, where queues can be long. He also believes it should not be considered a replacement for opening more tills and still requires staff.

Another example is at building merchant Jewson, which has used a mobile sales system in a number of its builders’ yards for many years. Staff in each branch are equipped with the devices, so that they can collate orders for customers as they browse.

The latest devices that Jewson has introduced are Motorola mobile computers with a barcode scanner. Staff can scan barcodes displayed next to each product to compile the customer’s order and then enter the amount of the product required. Jewson has also introduced a book in each store with barcode labels for its top 50 “collect now” items to speed up the creation of orders.

Jewson IT business services manager Russell Bower explains that the original roll-out of hand-held devices happened seven or eight years ago. Since then, the application that they run hasn’t changed a great deal, although the technology they use has. He says: “The old technology was delivered when wireless was leading-edge and standards have changed since then.

“The whole security standard has changed. The bandwidth you can get over wireless has changed and the devices are more robust, quicker and last longer. The other big win is that we used non-manageable devices before, but now we can configure them centrally and download new applications.”

However, the company has chosen not to add a payment tool to the device. Bower explains: “We haven’t done this, predominantly because the customer needs to sign as proof of receiving the goods. Customers seem to like the whole carbon-copy process and the branch managers like the chance to build a rapport with customers when they come to the desk.”

Jewson has also moved to three-year maintenance agreements because, in the past, it found that the costs of repairing devices and replacements skyrocketed. It has also changed the holsters that staff wear to carry the devices, with the addition of a safety wire to stop them being dropped on the floor. Holsters have also been fitted to the forklift trucks that staff use.

75 sites are now using mobile devices; 25 of these sites use new hardware and the other 50 use updated devices, which will be replaced next year as their warranties start to expire.

Bower adds that the mobile computers are in use in only a small percentage of its branches, although it has identified the next batch of 50 to 60 sites where they could be deployed. He says: “The challenge is whether we can get benefits from other areas, so we can scale out to other smaller branches.”

In total, 14 per cent of those retailers profiled for the Aberdeen Group report are using mobile EPoS, with a further 46 per cent saying that they plan to. The percentage of those that have introduced it is higher – at 25 per cent – among those retailers that Aberdeen decrees as being best-in-class when it comes to their point of sale. These best-in-class retailers are 1.8 times more likely than the industry average to measure and manage customer satisfaction as a key metric of customer experience at the point of sale, and 2.8 times more likely to do so than the industry laggards.

Retailers that live by customer satisfaction ratings are increasingly introducing mobile devices to lessen their EPoS pressure points. One size doesn’t fit all but, when tailored properly, their use can have impressive results.