Going Mobile In-Store: First Pile Up The Complexities, Then Simplify

What's so hard about using mobile devices in-store? Apple and Home Depot are already doing it. Nordstrom is kicking around ideas. Although most retailers are already deep into mobile commerce—where customers use their phones to buy when they're outside a store—few are flipping that scenario so that associates use mobile in-store, especially as POS devices. The problem, according to one retail IT exec: In-store mobile generates a dizzying array of options, and picking through them all seems next to impossible.

As that exec pointed out in a recent conversation, "Mobile POS is all trendy and cool right now, but it may not be the right answer to your problem." On the other hand, the possibilities don't have to be endless, especially if you start from what it's practical for mobile devices to do in your stores instead of starting with a device and imagining the possibilities.

Maybe you're trying to handle overflow from checkout lanes at the busiest times, the exec suggested. That means associates armed with mobile devices could cherry-pick just the customers whose purchases can be handled well by a mobile device. Compare that approach to replacing big cash-wrap stations so you can reclaim chunks of the sales floor: Now associates have to do everything that's possible at a full-scale cash wrap.

In-store mobile gets a lot simpler if all you're doing is sending associates out to roam the store doing suggestive selling or accepting returns only at the door on the way in. If your main goal is to look as cool as the guys in the Apple Store, things can get showy—and complicated—mighty fast.

If you're doing mobile POS, you'd really like to repurpose your existing POS application. That is (relatively) easy if you can just run the user interface on the handheld, but it's much more complicated if you must re-create the whole application on the mobile device. And what about payments? Swiping a credit card is easy these days. PIN debit gets trickier. Checks and cash are a nightmare.

A mobile POS device has to communicate securely with the store's Wi-Fi in a PCI-approved way. Loss-prevention gets a whole new meaning when a thief (or a bad-apple associate) can walk out of the store with a device containing your Wi-Fi passwords, your POS application and—if you've been sloppy—a collection of recent payment-card transactions.

A mobile device could also be used just to tally up a customer's purchases, after which the customer would have to pay at a kiosk or in a regular checkout lane. That's simpler, right? But that approach only speeds things up if the associate with the mobile device can also bag the goods, deactivate loss-prevention tags and collect clothes hangers.

Where does the associate carry all that stuff?Where does the associate carry all that stuff? If it goes on a cart, your mobile-equipped associates get a lot less mobile. If you have to create bag-and-tag stations throughout the store, customers have to be dragged to the nearest available one, and efficiency goes out the window.

And you'll still have to figure out how to send the list of goods the customer is buying to the kiosk or cash register. Then there's deciding whether to modify your existing POS application for that approach, to add new hardware at the cash point that pretends to the POS software that it's scanning all those products on the spot, or to rip out your POS software and replace it with something designed to support mobile POS—if you can find one that's PCI-approved.

See the problem? The options are endless. The opportunity for creating complexity by starting with a mobile device and building out from there is dangerously tempting. And complexity kills IT projects. Simplicity—even if it's just conceptual, 50,000-foot-level simplicity—is crucial.

Ironically, you really do have to pile up all those complications before you can clear away the clutter and get focused on how you can use mobile in-store. The laundry list of issues doesn't have to be a liability—it can be liberating.

Are payments going to be too much of a thicket? Don't accept them on the mobile devices. Stick to helping customers select products or scanning their purchases to prepare them for checkout. That way, in-store mobile stays out of PCI scope, and you can look Apple Store-slick without the mobile-payment pain.

Can your POS vendor sell you a front-end for your existing POS software, complete with wireless encryption tough enough to keep your QSA happy? Then you've got a practical way of doing at least some in-store mobile payments. Just don't forget to stick a giant-size loss-prevention tag on the back of each mobile device or to set up each device so it automatically wipes itself as soon as it's out of range of the store's Wi-Fi signal.

Do you believe you can assemble the parts that can plug mobile devices cleanly and securely into your POS software so it won't have to be modified? The more pain points you know about, the more easily you can dodge them—and the fewer pieces of the in-store mobile puzzle you plug in at a time, the better you'll control that pain.

Or have you convinced yourself that you really can get rid of your cash wraps and replace them all with roving associates? Good luck with that. At least armed with a long list of in-store mobile's issues, you know what you're in for.