The future's in hand Mobile technology is starting to make a big impact on store operations and shopping. Ed Bedington reports Retailing is becoming faster, more efficient ­ and hand-held. As digital connections improve, it looks as if mobile technology will be the catalyst to a revitalisation of the supply chain and quicker shopping. The term mobile commerce conjures up images of shopping with a mobile phone ­ buying baked beans while waiting for the bus ­ but mobile phones look set to take a back seat for the moment. The whole concept of m-commerce involves introducing a greater level of mobility into the entire shopping environment, benefiting not only the customers but the staff and the business. And everything, from handheld computers to wireless scanning devices, are already beginning to have an affect on the grocery sector. The capabilities are expanding all the time: Bluetooth technology means any enabled device can talk to another device without wires; General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) allows "always on" capabilities for devices to be permanently connected to email or the internet; and the third generation mobile phones, or 3G, promises high speed access to data. "The train is leaving town, and it's going slowly at the moment. But it will soon be getting faster as the technology rolls forward and people become more familiar with it," predicts Cap Gemini Ernst and Young's head of m-commerce Malcolm McKenzie. He adds that although the technology is still developing, companies should be running pilot projects and experiments to see how it will affect their business and stay ahead of the game. "Mobile technology is going to have a big impact on the retail industry. When we talk of m-commerce people automatically think of WAP phones. But m-commerce can play a major role in store operations and improve instore efficiency considerably." Safeway is a good example of a retailer exploiting mobile technology to improve operations. "The real impetus to invest in technology was driven by the desire to improve availability of product for our customers," says director of business systems Tony Mather. "Like most retailers our information was time of day relevant, our sales info came back at the end of the day." As the first step, Safeway introduced systems to allow it to receive sales data in real time, allowing it to keep a much better idea of what was going on. The company then moved on to ensure that stock adjustments were also supported in real time. "In the past that was done by somebody going out, writing the information down and coming back into the office and keying it into the computer. We thought it would be great if we could take this out to the shelf edge." The company invested in a radio frequency local area network infrastructure within stores and equipped staff with mobile palm computers, allowing them to make stock adjustments and instantly send information back to the mainframe. Mather says: "This means we now have the advantage of knowing whether a product is over or under selling at the right time and adjust stock orders accordingly." He adds the beauty of the system is its adaptability: "What it's become is a totally mobile platform that can be extended to almost any application outside of the supply chain. We've extended it to merchandising and we'll be extending it through to customer service in the future. It's in 200 stores at the moment, but we are aiming to have more than 480 of our main stores equipped by October. It is shattering that physical barrier of needing staff in the back room office rather than on the shop floor." And Safeway is not alone in taking the backroom computers out into the shop. Asda is in the process of rolling out Wal-Mart's Telxon scanner as part of a multi-million project to bring in US technology entitled Breakthrough. The company claims the scanner not only allows it to cut back on waiting time by scanning queuing customers' shopping, but also allows it to carry out administrative tasks on the shop floor. Breakthrough project manager David Ditcher says: "The idea of the scanner is to bring our PC based operations onto the shop floor, allowing staff and managers to spend more time on customer care. "The scanners, which are updated with information every 15 minutes, carry accurate stocks and sales information which means staff can scan a product barcode and see what's in stock and the product's sales details, and make stock adjustments at the shelf edge." Ditcher adds that because the system is keeping information up to date on a 15-minute basis, it's helping to improve order accuracy and product availability. Using mobile computing to improve efficiency can have a huge impact, according to Cap Gemini's McKenzie. "The amount of business benefits people can get are amazing. The possibility exists to get 15% efficiency savings with clever use of mobile technology. But you've got to work hard to get those benefits." He says many companies would have to undergo a fundamental change, not only by investing in new systems, but in changing attitudes. "You have to change people's behaviour. Plenty of people are used to doing things their own way and need to be educated to change their attitudes to new technology. Don't underestimate the need for change." Mobile computing is not the only handheld technology that is having an impact on grocery shopping. Scanners are becoming more popular with customers keen to avoid the everyday hassles of shopping and Waitrose, Safeway and Sainsbury have all introduced self scanning systems to respond to this. All of these systems allow customers to scan products as they pack them into their trolley. When they have finished shopping they go to a specially dedicated checkout, pay for their goods and leave, without having to unpack and repack their goods. Safeway's Shop and Go system has been in place for six years and according to Carl Nield, head of marketing services, feedback remains positive. He says the system, currently in 170 outlets, is better suited to its bigger stores, but is something the chain is keen to introduce wherever possible. "We were the first into handheld scanning in the UK and it's still a high priority with us because our customers still very much value it." Sainsbury's Fast Track system operates in a similar manner to Safeway and provides easy to use equipment for customers to operate in 33 of its stores. A spokesman says: "The system has been in place since 1997 and is not the latest technology, but it's one that people can use and like using." The company says there is no policy to fit every store with the system, but generally stores are assessed individually. Accenture's partner in retail products Oliver Benzecry says self scanning can help increase basket size: "People who are shopping on a budget are able to go right up to their limit while using the scanners, rather than guessing and stopping a few pounds short." Waitrose's self scanning system operates on a slightly more sophisticated set up according to Bill Bishop, head of selling services. "We have been operating our Quick Check system for a couple of years and have rolled it out to 38 stores, but we've been updating the technology and installing newer scanners." The Waitrose system uses wireless radio frequency technology and the new scanners incorporate a much bigger screen, allowing a greater amount of information to be displayed on the customer's hand set. The advantages flowing from RF technology mean not only an absence of cabling throughout the store, but also that Waitrose can use the system to communicate direct to customers. Bishop says: "Although we are not doing this yet, the technology allows us to greet each customer by name when they pick up their scanner. "We could market direct to them by telling them about special offers and information they need to know. These are just some of the things we're looking at introducing through the new system." Bishop says it is looking into bringing more mobile technology into its stores but says, at the moment, "it's a case of sorting the toys from the equipment that really matters". But what of the mobile phone, the catalyst, it could be argued, behind the current craze for all things small, technical and mobile? WAP, for many people, was one of the biggest disappointments of last year. A victim of its own hype, the bubble quickly burst when users realised they wouldn't actually be able to surf the internet on it, and it was more a case of stumbling painfully through a series of drab text menus. In the light of this disillusion, can the mobile phone recover its credibility to play a part in m-commerce? According to Sainsbury, not at the moment. A spokesman says: "There are serious developments needed in mobile phone technology before they can become viable for Sainsbury. Charges need to come down and handsets need to change. We're looking for improved screen size and colour and faster download speeds. We will be keeping an eye on it in the future though." However, Tesco has just launched a new service to provide mobile access to in conjunction with Microsoft. Called Tesco Access, it allows people with hand-held computers and WAP phones to buy their groceries on the move. John Browett, ceo of, says: "Before this, customers were restricted as to where they do their shopping. Now if they own a pocket pc they are able to shop on the move from anywhere in the UK." Cap Gemini's McKenzie says mobile phone technology is still very much in its infancy, although people are experimenting. "One petrol retailer was looking at a system which meant customers did not need to get out of their car to pay for petrol. Instead it would be charged through their phone and that idea is being explored by a number of other operators and people. "The problem is that, at the moment, the technology is a bit slow and cumbersome and people don't like to wait. But a year down the line we will have better technology and those sort of things will be much more straightforward." One retailer experimenting with mobile phones is United Co-op. The group teamed up with technology developer Digital Rum to offer WAP-using customers the chance to compare prices with other retailers. Bob Taylor, United Co-op's new channel development manager, says the system was set up to compliment its electrical and domestic appliance range. "It allows people to compare prices, either on-line or in store with other retailers and check specifications. They can do it there and then while it's in their mind." Taylor says it is looking into other potential areas but adds that it's still early days when it comes to m-commerce. "I think we will see a very slow build up, much like we did with e-commerce. "But although mobiles have a part to play, it's important to realise that people aren't going to use mobile phones to shop in the way they use the internet." Accenture's Benzecry backs this up: "In terms of the consumer, the first thing to say about m-commerce is that it isn't a channel like the internet or store. A PDA is not a great device for doing the shopping on. "But a mobile device can be carried with us all the time, and we can be in a store with it, so it becomes part of the shopping experience and can be used to improve that experience." Benzecry believes the next step will be handheld devices which help with the shopping. "Devices which could hold shopping lists allowing you to scan in barcodes mean you could then download onto a PC and order via the internet or go into the store and link to a kiosk. This would give you information like a route plan, suggest alternatives and inform you of relevant promotions." So m-commerce will not become a brand new channel with consumers queuing up to buy through it, but rather a high-tech addition to existing channels. And until we have the high speed access promised by 3G, m-commerce on a mobile phone remains a frustrating experience. Overall, existing mobile technology is capable of delivering huge benefits to retailers, in terms of supply chain efficiency, but for the average consumer, patience is going to be a virtue. Benzecry believes m-commerce is not going to be the next revolution, although it will have a big impact. "It's more a kind of rapid evolution. There's a whole bunch of technology coming at us very fast and those people not rapidly evolving are going to be left behind." He adds: "In three years mobile devices will be pretty pervasive. The explosion will happen when access speeds pick up, when they're as useful as a mobile phone. But for now it's easier to go to the shop yourself, or ask a friend!" {{COVER FEATURE }}