Tablet technology and the 'Apple-isation' of retail stores

Many of Britain's premier store-owners have decided that the recipe for retail success includes a big chunk of Apple.

Faced with the threat from online rivals on the one hand and the phenomenal success of Apple's stores on the other, the way ahead seems fairly obvious. Either make your stores something like the hundreds now run by the world's most successful IT company or at least adopt some of Apple's trademark products, such as the iPad.

But at this point, store-owners face a dilemma: do they opt for the prestige and 'cool' of iPads or do they go for something less fashionable but better suited to the bumps, scrapes and dirt of the retail environment.

It is certainly true that the iPad used in stores for assisted selling, as it is in retailers such as Burberry, and at the point of sale (PoS) is no different from the iPad used at home by consumers. It remains a device that is not designed to be repaired and was not built to be used at the parts desk of a garage.

Yet consider the significant benefits that come with the iPad. There is no staff training because it is so easy to use and many staff will already be familiar with it. And it brings with it an almost tangible bonus – kudos. Staff often prefer to use the iPad when given a choice of tablets and customers hold them in high esteem, too.

Now consider the rival products from manufacturers such as Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions and HP Retail Solutions. They have tablets that to all intents and purposes perform the same functions as the iPad but with a Windows operating system. The difference is that they have a rugged design and were created for retail with many parts, such as screens, that can be replaced.

Importantly, these tablets also have retail-specific accessories and are very much multi-purpose devices. They can be locked into PoS stands to become a till in conjunction with a cash drawer, scanner and receipt printer while at the flick of a button they can be detached so that staff can walk out into the store to use them for queue busting or assisted shopping.

Companies like Toshiba and HP have made their tablets more resilient by giving them a range of rugged jackets suited to individual markets such as retail, financial or medical. Some tablets also have a double battery that effectively gives them a full 12-hour working day without recharge. Their design incorporates scanners for barcodes and QR codes and in some cases, magnetic swipe readers. The next generation is also set to have Chip and PIN readers.

Software applications allow these devices to be used for stock-taking and staff training or as interactive devices for customers, with front-facing scanners to provide recognition biometrics and scanning of barcodes.

Although the Apple iPad can be used for nearly all of these functions, the difference is that third-party technology has to be employed. Yes, there is a rugged jacket that allows the iPad to be docked and used as a till, but it remains a consumer product better suited to being docked three or four times per day rather the many times required in a store.

Should a retailer seek to completely turnover its stores by taking a leaf out of Apple's book, it had better bear in mind the substantial cost involved. Apple does not have to buy iPads and already has a slick relationship with many of those entering its stores. These are customers who can pay through iTunes and receive receipts electronically.

Nonetheless, British retailers are advancing step by step. Only six years ago they could not have put a tablet in front of a customer indicating precisely how many particular dresses or cameras were available. Now the software is available.

However, any store-owner suddenly increasing the number of mobile devices on their premises must consider the importance of infrastructure and its capacity. The “Apple-isation” of retail has led consumers to expect wireless access, just as much as staff and a single point of failure can lead to an operational and reputational disaster.

Overall, the choice of devices for use in-store as part of the continuing retail revolution will be determined by many factors, some of them unique to each retailer. Yet the best advice for any retail business is that it should obtain the most rugged product it can.   

Richard Cottrell is sales and marketing director for Vista Retail Support.

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