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In-Store Information Technology: Your Invisible Associate.

The recession has dramatically increased the pressure on retailers to maintain and improve their competitiveness, even amid staffing reductions.Charles Dickens may as well have been speaking to a business audience in 2009 with his familiar first lines from “A Tale of Two Cities” – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….”  As rough as it is out there, we do believe that this year’s harsh economic winter contains hope-filled seeds of recovery for savvy retailers.

The recession has dramatically increased the pressure on retailers to maintain and improve their competitiveness, even amid staffing reductions.  According to industry reports, U.S. retailers eliminated more than 500,000 jobs in 2008, and sadly, the trend continues in 2009 – resulting not only from store closures, but from staff reductions in remaining locations.  So, how can retailers with leaned-out operations continue to sharpen their competitiveness through streamlining operations, improving the customer experience and shrewd marketing?

No one says it will be easy, but one answer to that question is, “leverage information technology wisely.”  Do that and, when the economy rebounds as we all trust it will, you will be poised for an even stronger recovery than the industry at large.

Customer-focused technology can reduce costs, increase sales

In good times and bad, one has to look at day-to-day retail operations and ask, “Isn’t there a better way to do that?”   “Enabling technology” solutions that automatically complete routine tasks – pushing data and information around your systems, posting prices, changing signage, etc. – can allow retailers to redeploy employees and allow them to create a more satisfying customer experience, ultimately increasing consumer confidence.

Here are a few solutions to consider.  Even if, in your particular operations, no one solution will free up or replace an entire employee, combine several and you may be surprised at the productivity enhancement.

1. Integrated Point of Sale (POS)/Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC):  Integrating AIDC with POS systems allows retailers to collect essential data and customer information quickly and accurately.  These solutions help achieve real-time inventory tracking, merchandising strategies, customer trends, improve sales price accuracy and reduce manual processes — all while enabling customer-focused rewards and loyalty programs.  Knowing more about your customers enables better service as well as the ability to communicate offerings of interest to them more effectively.

2. Customer Relationship Management (CRM):  Most of the commonly used POS software solutions include a CRM module that is too often unused or under-used, especially among small retail operations.  As you are collecting data on your customers via the POS/AIDC channel, consider activating your CRM capability to assist with inventory management in order to suit the demand patterns you discover.  Also keep in mind that customers in a tough economy are shopping for extra value, which you can offer them if you understand what they are seeking.  Finally, the more direct, tailored and personal your marketing, the more loyal your customers will become – even if your prices aren’t the lowest in town.  Bottom line, CRM is all about helping you drive sales.

3. Mobile Cashiering:  You have probably seen these in action, but they are not just for high end retail brands any more.  Wireless, handheld payment processing terminals unchain store associates from the checkout counter and allow them to circulate within the store – helping customers find what they want instead of (could it be?) leaving the store frustrated because they couldn’t.  Plus, customers who don’t have to stand in a checkout line are happier customers.

4. Digital Signage:  These interactive messaging platforms employ networked LCD monitors to communicate with employees and customers.  It can deliver effective real-time advertising, while minimizing advertising, communications and human resource costs with content management architecture.

5. Security:  Today’s Internet Protocol (IP) video surveillance systems can provide affordable eyes throughout the store and help reduce asset losses –shoplifting and other forms of theft do increase when economic times are hard.  IP video can also provide a useful audit tool when cameras are focused on checkout stations and time-synchronized with the POS transaction record.

No one in this economy will argue that life is easy out on the retail streets.  The odds are that retail owners and IT support staff are working harder and longer hours than ever.  But with these challenges comes an opportunity to see if the technology you already own can lend more of a helping hand and whether a modest investment in new capabilities will afford you greater peace of mind – and even create opportunities you may otherwise have never noticed.

About the author: "Marc Barnett, a senior manager for solutions with CDW Corp., works closely with the company's systems engineers and technical experts to develop technology solutions to respond to specific business challenges facing organizations.   Recently, Marc led CDW's effort to build an expanded portfolio of solutions specifically for retailers.  He has more than two decades of IT experience, including senior leadership positions with major telecommunications organizations."

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