Commentary

A Holiday Wish For A Handheld For Every Salesperson

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Here's one trend I'd like to see gain traction in 2011: other retailers adopting Apple's mobile point-of-sales (POS) system to streamline the in-store sales process. The Apple-tracking site 9 To 5 Mac reports that The Gap, and its Old Navy subsidiary, are rolling out Apple's EasyPay POS system on a trial basis to allow sales people to wirelessly handle purchases on iPhones or iPod touch devices from anywhere within their stores.

A Gap spokesperson confirmed to 9 to 5 Mac that the company is piloting Apple's iPod based-POS at a few of its Old Navy Stores. The site further reports the system prints customer receipts wirelessly to stationed printers around stores, and some Old Navy employees are even wearing mini-printers on their belts. With the holiday retail blitz in full swing, the timing for this move is obviously apt. Who needs to stand endlessly online when you can check out on the go?

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The question is, why aren't more retailers offering mobile checkout, either by directly adopting Apple's software, third-party mobile applications providing similar POS functionality, or other customized systems?

"Everyone wants to replicate the Apple Store experience in mobile customer service and getting sales associates out from behind the counter and having more power in their hands," acknowledged Greg Buzek, president of IHL Consulting Group, which focuses on technology for the retail and hospitality industries.

But concerns about security and merging new wireless POS technology with legacy back-end systems so far have held back most retailers from trying to emulate Apple's approach, he said. In particular, the challenge of extending encryption and tokenization technologyto wireless POS purchases to protect credit card data is a hurdle for many retailers.

The traditional card payment systems at checkout use those technologies to keep customer card numbers from residing in retailers' own computer networks. Buzek suggested Apple has made the shift to wireless POS more easily because its retail outlets are newer than other stores and aren't as burdened by legacy back-end systems. Apple didn't respond to a media inquiry Thursday about its POS efforts.

The retail industry on the whole isn't known for employing cutting-edge technology, spending about one-fifth as much on IT as others like financial services and insurance companies. That said, IHL expects a growing number of retailers to equip in-store sales forces with mobile devices--iPods, iPads, Android-based smartphones or tablets--to assist customers or process sales on the spot. It predicts one in five specialty stores will offer mobile POS in the next two years.

In the interim, Buzek said some stores will have systems that allow sales associates to scan items for shoppers who will then be given an order number they can bring to a self-serve kiosk or checkout station to complete a purchase securely. Even so, other companies historically have had trouble imitating product or service innovations by Apple--hopefully, the walking checkout counter will be an exception.

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