J.C. Penney Line-Moving Experiment Proves Wirelessly Tricky

J.C. Penney is experimenting with some customer checkout herding technology in its Manhattan store. Although the retailer has succeeded in persuading customers that the lines are moving faster—whether or not they actually are moving faster is unclear—it has failed in its intended wireless launch of the system.

The difference between wireless in a test lab and wireless in the field has again reared its ugly 802.11 head.

The J.C. Penney trial began in December 2008 at the $18.5 billion 1,101-store chain's 103,000-square foot Ft. Worth, Texas, store. The goal was to test the system for a deployment at the chain's first Manhattan store (a much larger 153,000-square foot store), which opened this summer. (The chain already had New York City stores in Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.)

According to John Wise, the chain's director of store planning and design, the system is designed to be flexible and to change from store to store. The Ft. Worth package, for example, consists of one desktop unit underneath the checkout counter as well as both a 17-inch monitor and a half-dozen 6- to 7-inch monitors in the immediate area to guide customers to the next available POS terminal. It also included a series of small buttons—right at the POS stations—to signal that they are ready for the next customer.

Called the U.S. Lawrence Metal Electronic Call Forward queuing system, the initial Ft. Worth package cost the chain about $16,000. The larger setup for the Manhattan store "did not cost much more than that," Wise said, but that store was always supposed to be deployed wirelessly. Unfortunately, that option didn't work out: Wise said he didn't like the poor quality of the video images sent to the monitors. The problem went away when J.C. Penney hauled out Cat5 cable and snaked it through the ceiling. "It had to be wired. Some of the pictures were not as clear as I wanted them to be," Wise said.

It was never determined precisely why the wireless option had problems, he said, but the underground parts of the building and the comparatively low eight-foot ceilings (most J.C. Penney stores have 12-foot ceilings) might have played a role. Wise also said that he couldn't get a good cell phone signal when at that location.

But the project's core objective was to make customers less unhappy about having to wait in line and to reduce lost sales because of customers abandoning their physical shopping carts. And that part, Wise said, worked wonderfully.In customer surveys, the perception was that customers were waiting in line for less time and objected to that time less.

Beyond the efficiency of customers being moved forward the instant a POS station is open, the system broadcasts little videos—ads, really—to entertain customers and to perhaps plant an idea in their heads for a future shopping visit. The system also broadcasts an estimate of the remaining wait time, mostly based on an average of how long the prior 10 transactions took.

The system will never be rolled out to the entire chain, Wise said, adding that it would only be helpful in J.C. Penney's higher density locations.