How Mobility Transforms The Retail Sector

Aug 29, 2005 (04:08 PM EDT)

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Mobile software has proven itself invaluable in a number of vertical markets in the business world, including healthcare and financial services. One particular corporate sector that has seen an increase in mobile applications is retail, ranging from online retailers to grocery stores.

Despite an industry reputation for being something of a technology laggard, retailers are increasingly turning to technology to improve operations and boost razor-thin margins. It's no surprise then that mobile solutions are delivering significant competitive advantage. Retail employees from managers to buyers to sales associates are constantly on the move, and giving these employees access to the right data at the right time — no matter where they are — is dropping benefits to the bottom line.

Fast-Growing Adoption To understand the impact that mobile software has had on this crucial market segment, and Intel recently commissioned a survey that targeted readers of, and other CMP technology web sites.

Slightly more than half of the survey respondents (53 percent) said their organization currently uses a mobile software solution. Of those who do not yet have a mobile solution in place, about 37 percent said their organization plans to deploy mobile software within the next 12 months.

Still, many have not yet adopted mobility. About 42 percent said their companies plan to deploy mobile software in more than 12 months and 21 percent said they would not ever deploy a mobile solution. Clearly this data shows that although some progress has been made in mobile adoption in the retail market, there is still some way to go.

Figure 1

Mobile Workforce
Of the respondents who said that their organization is currently using mobile software solutions, about 75 percent said that up to half of their employees are mobile. A mobile employee was defined as spending more than 20 percent of his or her time working away from the office. The other 25 percent of respondents said more than 50 percent of their workforce is mobile.

Figure 2

When asked who exactly these mobile workers are, it's not surprising to learn that executive managers are the most mobile of retail employees. But not far behind are retail managers, administrative staff and retail associates, which demonstrates that mobility is fast becoming pervasive at all levels.

Figure 3

E-mail and voice, of course, are the most prevalent mobile applications, with 81 percent of the respondents and 56 percent of the respondents using these applications respectively. Smart phones and handhelds are being used for paging by a third of the respondents.

Mobility is helping to improve the shopping experience for consumers, as retailers in our survey look to in-store kiosks to provide better access to product information and to provide self-service checkout. For instance, a quarter of the respondents are using mobile point-of-sale and 12 percent use kiosks for self-service checkout. And 23 percent said they have set up a wireless hotspot for customers.

Wireless is also helping retailers transform from a focus on point of sale to point of service. These point-of-service systems not only provide transactional support, but also bring data from customer relationship management and supply chain applications right to the salesperson's fingertips.

In the study, a third used mobile customer relationship management and inventory tracking. A fifth of respondents are using mobile solutions for inventory replenishment.

Figure 4

Return on Investment for Mobile

Return on Investment for Mobile
For retail organizations, one of the keys to a successful business is improving service to customers. Better customer service and productivity gains were the benefits cited by more than 60 percent of respondents whose organizations currently use mobile applications.

Half said that mobility improved workflow and resulted in cost savings. Also cited as benefits were more accurate data and better inventory management.

Figure 5

To put a dollar amount on the benefits realized by the deployment of mobile software, about 25 percent of survey respondents said their organizations return on investment (ROI) for their mobile solution was less than $100,000. About 20 percent said their ROI was between $100,000 and $499,000, 8.5 percent had a ROI of between $500,000 and $1 million, and 5.6 percent said their company's ROI was more than $1 million. But proving that quantifiable benefits are slippery to pin down, almost 40 percent of respondents said they were unable to attach a dollar amount.

Figure 6

Top Obstacles
While many organizations saw financial or productivity benefits after deploying a mobile solution, a number of challenges had to be overcome during a mobile deployment. At the top of the list is ensuring security and privacy, with 50 percent of respondents saying it's a critical issue. Such a focus is no surprise since security issues can be more complex and less understood in the mobile world.

Between 30 percent and 40 percent of respondents also stated that cost justifying the mobile deployment, insufficient network coverage/bandwidth, integrating mobile applications with existing applications/technology, device usability, training employees on the new applications, and unstable connections to network application were high on the list of challenges.

Figure 7

Retailers use a wide variety of devices. Almost 85 percent of survey respondents have deployed laptops to its workforce, while phones (73 percent) and PDAs (61 percent) follow close behind. Other devices used at these retail organizations include smart phones, tablet PCs and RFID readers.

Nearly 40 percent cited insufficient network coverage/bandwidth as a major challenge. So what networks are these retailers using? Wi-Fi comes out on top with 67 percent saying it's been installed at their sites. A little over half (52 percent) are employing GSM, GPRS or EDGE cellular technologies, while about 43 percent are using the higher speed 3G CDMA or EV-DO flavors of cellular. About 40 percent use Bluetooth, and 16 percent are supporting RFID.

Patricia Schnaidt is the publisher of Mobilized Software. Anita Karve is managing editor of Mobilized Software.