Retailers will see multiple benefits of issuing their staff with tablets to serve customers in stores – and their deployment in the physical retail space can have a positive impact internally and externally.

That was one of the conversation points at a recent IBM-hosted roundtable in London, where retail and technology industry delegates gathered for a debate on the future of the sector, and to discuss some of the emerging trends.

Event participants representing IBM, Planet Retail, Forrester, eCompetency, Somo, Cybersource, IORMA and Essential Retail noted how merchants are placing a concerted focus on mobile tech when serving the modern customer. But on many occasions, it would seem, they are still second guessing shoppers' needs as they grapple with how to efficiently operate beacons, proximity marketing and other related solutions.

Taking a tablet

An increasing number of retailers are starting to deploy in-store technology that reflects what their customers are using at home, namely iPads and other mobile tablet devices, and this looks set to be a hot point for retail in the coming years. The first movers, such as global fashion house Burberry, have primarily used these tools for helping customers check stock and to showcase ranges that are unavailable in-store.

Future use – and only a few retailers are providing the service to date – revolves around linking payments to tablet devices so that businesses can take customers' money around the shop-floor. Other retailers, such as Carphone Warehouse, have rolled out tablets to the majority of their workforce, allowing staff to check stock levels, compare prices and generally give salespeople an opportunity to have more interactive conversations with consumers.

There are tools now available which allow retailers to build customer profiles on these tablet devices, feeding through shopper data such as social media conversations, so that businesses can offer a truly personal service to people as they enter a store.

Commenting at the IBM event, IT strategist and Somo representative Craig Crawford – who was a senior member of Burberry's tech architecture team between 2007 and March 2014 – said "stores will have fewer cash tills" in the future.

He added that Burberry has been successful in introducing in-store mobile engagement because it ensured there was a "joined-up approach" between all colleagues before it introduced its clientelling tool.

"We put tablets in front of execs first, which drove the roll-out across the business," he explained.

"The set-up also created a sense of belonging among staff because they had access to executive messages [and other business information]."

If Burberry has been perceived to be a trendsetter in the deployment of this technology, then another retailer to keep an eye on in the 12 months ahead may be high street fashion player Monsoon-Accessorize, which is undergoing a store property refit that will see traditional cash desks minimised while the number of tablet-led mobile point of sale (MPoS) terminals are increased.

In an interview with Essential Retail earlier this year, Monsoon's IT and eCommerce director John Bovill said 60% of the people using the retailer's in-store tablet devices opt for click & collect transactions, adding: "[Using the tablets] facilitates a conversation and drives incremental sales and we'll use it to really assist the customer in buying whatever may be in our supply chain."

Delegates at the IBM roundtable suggested that MPoS and the use of tablets in the clientelling process can strengthen retail salespeople's knowledge of the brand they represent. It is also technology that consumers are apparently comfortable using, judging by IMRG and Capgemini's research which shows that 50% of online sales were made with either a tablet or mobile in the third quarter of 2014.

New developments

Further developments in this space emerged last week when IBM and Apple announced a partnership for bringing to market the first wave of IBM's MobileFirst business apps for iOS solutions. Supporting cloud services, the apps can deliver IBM's big data and analytics capabilities to iPhone and iPad users within an enterprise environment.

Although developed for a number of different business sectors, there are apps specifically targeted at retail to allow store associates to connect with customer profiles, make suggestions to shoppers based on their previous purchases and set up other fulfilment options.

Speaking at the time of the launch, Philip Schiller, Apple's SVP of worldwide marketing, called the move "a big step for iPhone and iPad in the enterprise", adding that the new solutions will "help businesses redefine how work gets done".

Traditional cash tills are not going to disappear any time soon as not every shopper demographic will want to buy into the mobile way of shopping – and in many cases it isn't practical to remove them – but it is clear that as the role of the high street becomes increasingly consultative, the way businesses deploy their space will evolve too.

More and more agile points of sale are expected to appear in high street retail stores across the UK in the next 18 months.

As IORMA board member John Andrews suggested during the recent IBM meeting, retailers must understand there has been "a fundamental mind-set change" brought about by the mobilisation of shoppers and the way payments technology has developed in recent years. Digital shopping and on-the-go communication has brought the customer closer to the brand or retailer than they have ever been.

"We [consumers] are now the point of sale," he remarked.

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