Comment: Selecting a tablet for the digital retail store

With the massive growth in smartphones, tablets, and 4G telecoms, as well as customer expectations, the digital retail store is becoming a reality, and the tablet is often taking centre stage.

Retailers have recognised that tablets are a good way to introduce the digital world into their stores, and although they are using them in different ways, in each case there are many factors to consider when selecting the most appropriate tablet.

Using tablets

The principle way in which retailers are using tablets is to allow access to the extended product range via the eCommerce channel, and to save the sale when a customer has failed to find their preferred product in the store. Other uses include foot measurement (Clarks), games to engage children (Vodafone), and website browsing to raise brand awareness (Waitrose).

Selecting tablets

From operating system to payments and peripherals, retailers have seven essential decisions to make when selecting a tablet for use in-store.

1. Device management

In the same way that personal desktop and laptop computers need to be managed and maintained centrally, tablets also need to be supported. Required functions include an internal 'app store' to add and maintain applications, security management, asset register and removal of unwanted features. With many retailers now having thousands of devices (e.g. Marks & Spencer (M&S) has 1,500) tablets cannot be maintained on an ad hoc basis.

Vendors offering device management solutions include Airwatch, MobileIron and Citrix, and they can mostly support all types of tablet (Apple iOS, Google Android and Windows 8).

2. Operating system & device

Deciding on the device and operating system is an important part of the selection process. There are three main options.

Early adopters used the Apple iPad as the tablet of choice and it is still popular with fashion retailers such as Burberry, Oasis and Coast. The iPad is generally seen as the premium option, by customers and staff, but central device management can be difficult and each year Apple releases a new version of its iOS operating system, which requires retesting of applications.

Windows devices have strong in-built security and operating system, and applications can be managed using the Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) that also manage the corporate Windows estate. Several hardware manufacturers (e.g. HP, Dell and Lenovo) provide tablets for Windows and ruggedized versions are available. There is also a good range of screen sizes and space capacities.

Android is used by the most hardware manufacturers, including Samsung, Asus, Amazon, Sony and even the Tesco Hudl. This gives a large variety of screen sizes and space capacities from which to choose.

3. Peripherals

A popular requirement for tablets is the ability to scan the barcode of a product and find it on the retailer's website. Some retailers have adopted wireless barcode scanner hardware (e.g. Monsoon) and others have developed functionality which uses the device’s camera. It makes sense to use the  functions built into the tablet if possible, although this can extend the development time and needs to be considered alongside the savings in hardware and support costs.

4 .Payment

Both Mastercard and Visa view any transaction completed in-store on a tablet as "customer present", which means it must be Chip and PIN enabled. This is usually achieved by connecting a PIN pad to a tablet wirelessly by Bluetooth. To maintain customer and staff confidence, it is important that the overall user experience is straight forward. This approach has been adopted by M&S on its estate of 1,500 iPads.

PoS vendors are actively investing in mobility for their solutions and this area is in rapid change, including the rise of new services such as Apple Pay and tablet-based PoS such as Revel.

5. Enablers

Retailers must consider strength, suitability and security of store Wi-Fi, and power and physical security requirements, as well as suitable repair and replacement services with SLAs to ensure that hardware is operational for as much time as possible.

6. Fixed versus roaming

Some retailers have tablets fixed within the store environment (e.g. Argos for its digital catalogue, Apple for product information, Waitrose to allow website browsing in its café) and others allow staff to carry the device around the store (e.g. M&S, Monsoon, Burberry).

If the tablet is fixed, security, power and the ergonomics (e.g. positioning height, screen glare from lighting) all need to be considered. If the item is carried around, a suitable case is required, which can double up as a place to hold peripherals (e.g. barcode scanner and Chip and PIN device).

To ensure the most suitable approach is adopted, retailers will almost always want to run a pilot before rolling out a solution across the store estate.

7. Website development

If a retailer chooses to present its website on the tablet, the website should be tablet-optimised. A few simple changes can help to support the touch interface, such as larger buttons or redesigned filters. Development teams should also review how much code they have on each page. Some retailers using an older iPad are already seeing problems with modern releases of websites, as the processor struggles to process the page content fast enough.


Although there are many factors to consider when assessing the role of tablets in a digital retail store, the simple principles have changed very little. The technology needs firstly to meet the requirements of the customer, the store associate, retail operations and the technology team. Without considering all of these areas, adoption of the technology may be limited.

Martin Ryan is director of technology consulting at Javelin Group, a specialist omnichannel retail consultancy and systems integration firm.

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