Home Depot Mobile: Great, Unless You Have To Use It, Associates Say

Home Depot's mobile point-of-sale device looks like a big success: The First Phone was used for almost a million POS transactions in the last quarter of 2010, the company told investors on February 22. But store associates complain about First Phone shortages, bulky hardware, buggy software and lack of training—and the fact that IT either can't or won't fix problems with the devices, even when associates take the trouble to send descriptions of device problems up the chain of command.

Their consensus: The First Phone works, but it still has a long way to go. That's what you'd expect from a first try at a mobile POS device, though, and that first draft won't get better without lots of listening on the part of IT. The comments of the Home Depot associates go a long way to point out the challenges mobile POS faces as it rolls out at Home Depot, Nordstrom and other retailers.

In the Home Depot investor's call last week, it was all good news about the First Phone rollout. "This device gives the associate real-time data on sales, gross margin and inventory," said Marvin Ellison, executive vice president of U.S. stores for the chain. It "simplifies the in-stock process, which is big for us.

"But one thing that's been a pleasant surprise is checkout. We had almost one million transactions in the fourth quarter on the First Phone in checking customers out at point-of-sale. So a mobile point-of-sale checkout is big for us, because we have a huge focus this year on speed of checkout. And the results and the feedback have been terrific."

Well, maybe not universally terrific, at least according to associates who post their opinions on Internet forums that aren't under the retailer's control. (In the case of Home Depot, we found one called "The Orange Blood Bank"—orange like the Home Depot logo, get it?—where employees can compare notes, compliment and complain anonymously.)

To be sure, there are plenty of positive comments—most of these associates genuinely like at least some parts of the First Phone. "It's a great piece of electronics, so much to learn, but all info is a push button away," one associated posted. Wrote another, "The best thing is the fact that they speed up customer service. You can get all the info on a given SKU without walking away from a customer."Then there are the associates who praise the devices with faint damnation: "It's big, heavy, slow and confusing at first, but I have to admit all the saved trips to a computer makes it a good thing for me. It may be outdated technology, but I think I am gonna like it."

That brings up the first dilemma for mobile POS early adopters: There aren't any well-tested off-the-shelf products that do exactly what they want, so they have to cobble things together themselves.

Home Depot's device is actually a ruggedized combination smartphone and walkie-talkie from Motorola that was introduced in mid-2008. (It actually looks older than that. When I saw one up close, it reminded me of a PDA from 2005 on steroids.)

By the time Home Depot's developers created and tested the custom software for it and got the device into associates' hands last year, it was two years old—an eternity in the smartphone world.

Would a conventional smartphone be a better choice for most retailers? Hardware associates have to deal with concrete floors and piles of heavy product, so a ruggedized device may be a must. For most other retailers, something sleeker and more stylish probably makes more sense—but off-the-shelf devices like the iPhone have their own challenges.

Complaints about the phones themselves go deeper than aesthetics, though. "Phone reception is hit or miss," one associate wrote. "My department head carries two phones, and turns off the phone portion of the First Phone because he can't hear. This is his solution to having customers getting mad because he can't hear them and is constantly asking them to repeat themselves."

(Unlike some retailers who are considering using mobile phones inside their stores, Home Depot uses voice-over-IP through a Wi-Fi network, so the one problem these associates don't have is catching a cell-tower signal through layers of concrete and metal.)

And the two-way radio?And the two-way radio? "It sounds like those push-to-talk cell phones with all of the beeps and weird sounds it makes when sending/receiving. A conversation on one of those things sounds like NASA communicating with the space shuttle," a different associate wrote.

"Battery life isn't what it's cracked up to be," another complained. "And when it goes dead, you have to go to the computer room to get another battery."

Yes, some of that grousing is based on what associates remember from using conventional phones and walkie-talkies, before the mobile POS devices arrived. But apparently no one primed associates' expectations appropriately.

And the complaints don't stop at the hardware level.

Training? "More extensive training would have helped a lot. All I got was 'go watch the video.' The video didn't tell you jack about how to actually use the darn phone, it just told you why it was so great," an associate wrote.

Another commented, "Apparently there is no mention of inventory in the instruction manual. In the meantime, I figured it out by pure chance (and was lucky enough to remember what I had done in order to show others how the function works). It was not difficult, but some of the steps certainly were not obvious."

Yet another associate, visiting a store he didn't work at, discovered employees who had no idea what to do with the phones, identified himself and quickly walked them through the basics. "Associates were handed this device on a Saturday (our busiest day of week) with zero basic training. Now they can at least use the radio and phone, and scan an item to see if they have it or what store might have it."

Security? Apparently, some managers couldn't (or wouldn't) figure out how to do ordering—but with the new devices, only the managers' logins were allowed to order. "We have some regular employees who do some of the ordering when the department head is not there," wrote an associate. "Now they have to have their department head's login, another impediment to efficiency." That's right—associates are being told to use their manager's login, which is both a terrible security practice and grounds for termination.Then there are complaints about not enough devices to go around and managers hoarding the belt holsters (these phones are too big to fit comfortably in a pocket)—or hoarding the phones themselves, which means managers are carrying the mobile POS devices instead of the associates who will actually use them with customers.

And there's the fact that the beeps that confirm scanning will mysteriously disappear for 20 seconds if a call comes in on the radio. In addition, there's a three-second delay after scanning before the device responds—not a big deal when an associate is scanning a price for a customer, but an eternity for someone doing inventory. A host of other task-specific complaints come from the people who are actually using the devices to do their jobs.

In short, those associate complaints detail everything that's wrong with the first draft of these mobile devices. It's not the sort of thing software developers and project managers like to hear—even though many of the associates are complaining with one breath and describing the mobile devices as "great tools," "spectacular," "a major leap forward" and "so cool!" in the next.

Unfortunately, after most of a year since the First Phone rollout began, some Home Depot associates get the feeling that IT isn't listening. "We have all found the obvious and not-so-obvious glitches and flaws in the First Phone and brought them to the attention of folks who should care but either don't or are powerless to affect changes to correct them," one grumbled. "The thing was not quite ready for prime time and suggestions and critiques go ignored, because we are not qualified to question the work of the 'experts.'"

That may not be the reality, but it's the perception. Listening to those criticisms, and even encouraging them, is exactly what IT should be doing. There's no magic to getting business processes right in any IT initiative. It's never going to be right the first time through. And it only gets better after the associates in the stores put the technology through its paces, point out the problems and make suggestions.

Interestingly, none of the Home Depot associates voiced any complaints about the First Phone's ability to perform mobile checkout for a customer. Even if nothing else works perfectly, that's a start.