Home Depot Chops POS From New In-Store Mobile Devices

Home Depot's new version of its in-store mobile device won't let associates do in-aisle checkout—a detail that underlines a shift in how the 2,200-store home-improvement chain views its handheld technology. For here on out, it's definitely not one-size-fits-all.

Although the original 34,000 First Phone devices (which will still be used in stores) can be hooked up to a portable printer to serve as mobile POS, the 25,000 new stripped-down First Phone Junior units will do price scans and inventory checks but not POS, under the theory that it's not a feature most associates need.

And it is associates, not managers, who are the target for the new “Junior” phones, which (like the original First Phones) can be used as walkie-talkies and to scan products, verify prices, check inventory levels and handle workload management, according to Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes.

The Junior devices, which are based on the Motorola EWP3000, are 60 percent lighter (5.3 ounces instead of 14 ounces) than the original and roughly the dimensions of an iPhone, except more than twice as thick. That means they can fit in an associate’s pocket, which the original First Phones (at 6 in. by 3.3 in. by 1.7 in.) could never do.

The Junior hardware also costs about a third of the price of the original First Phones, based on street prices, at least before any customization and volume discounts the chain is getting from Motorola.

What's been stripped out of the new phones along with the weight, girth and mobile POS capabilities are half the memory, most of the screen real estate and some business analytics functions mainly used by managers. The chain says that’s not a signal it’s backing away from mobile POS—just that every associate doesn’t have a regular need for it.

If anything, big-box home-improvement stores have no choice on the mobile POS question. Not everything can go out through the staffed main checkout and self-checkout area. Lumber and contractor purchases have to be loaded from a dock. Garden and paving items are at the other end of the store, and hauling them through doesn’t make sense. Mobile POS for queue busting is an occasional use; these are everyday applications.

In Home Depot’s case, there were also other considerations, including PCI and a limited number of mobile POS attachments.

In Home Depot’s case, there were also other considerations: With the First Phones that the chain started using in 2010, checkout required adding a mobile POS attachment that includes a receipt printer but also shuts down most of the device’s capabilities to meet PCI requirements. Each store got about 15 First Phones and three or four mobile POS attachments. Dedicate a few phones with POS capabilities to Garden, Pro and Lumber, and then put managers at the top of the list for the remaining devices, followed by associates with specific needs for job functions the devices support, and the number available for most associates gets small very quickly.

These aren’t issues that show up in, say, apparel or grocery chains. They’re certainly not problems Apple faces doing in-aisle checkout in its own stores.

Home Depot is using a two-tier approach to the problem of not having enough First Phones. Consider: The new, slimmed-down Juniors can run much of the same software as the original First Phones, just less of it. They’re smaller, lighter and a fraction of the original’s price. That’s a very attractive argument for two tiers, even with the added cost of supporting two different devices with accessories and software variations.

It's also a little more obvious for Home Depot than for most chains that have fielded in-store mobile devices, which usually come from Apple. Home Depot needed ruggedized handsets that could replace walkie-talkies in a dusty environment with hard concrete floors. That eliminated the mostly glass iPhones and pushed the price way up, leaving lots of room for a cheaper second tier. It also meant any lower tier devices wouldn't be taking a higher end device out of a user's hands. They'll be going to associates who don't have any handheld at all.

For retailers using iDevices, there's not so much maneuvering room—these are mass-market devices with much lower prices than the ones Home Depot has. And if they're already deployed to all associates, there's a status problem: Store managers won't be happy if they have to take some associates down a tier. And those associates? They really won't be happy.

Still, it’s worth considering. How many of the applications associates regularly use can be stuffed onto a low-end iPod Touch? What functions don’t they use can be taken out of the standard app set? Which associates really do need a fatter device? How many iPads could you add per store if the default lower tier device was as cheap as possible?

When it comes to standard IT wisdom, the average one-size-fits-all device is a no-brainer: It’s easier to maintain, simpler to keep spares for and less of a hassle all around. Chances are good that, at most chains, the numbers for two device tiers won’t make sense—at least not now.

That's probably what Home Depot thought two years ago, too.