A grocery store associate uses a Zebra handheld mobile computer to scan the price of a product for a customer
By Anees Haidri | March 06, 2020

What Mobile Technologies Should Be Able to Do for Store Associates and Shoppers – and What Many Can’t

Retail associates rely on handhelds and tablets to help customers find and pay for items. Yet, many are finding their devices very unreliable – and not just because of accidental drops.

We can’t live without our mobile devices and your employees can’t work without them. The feedback received during Zebra’s 2020 Shopper Vision Study confirmed that.

Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of store associates believe that shoppers can have a better experience in stores when they – the associates – can use the latest technology to assist them, and the majority of shoppers (58 percent) agree.

Whether helping customers checkout, manning the fitting rooms or managing stock, arming store associates with a host of enterprise-grade mobile technologies that are designed to keep customers and, frankly, associates happy is the key to generating sales, which keeps your shareholders happy. For example:

That being said, you may not enjoy the same efficiencies and outcomes if you opt for consumer-grade devices or even some enterprise-grade devices that were originally intended for other use cases.

Think about it this way: Would you use a mass-marketed chainsaw to cut down a redwood? A push mower to landscape an entire park? Or a pickup instead of a semi-trailer truck to haul cargo across the country? Of course not. You wouldn’t attempt such feats no matter how much money you might save upfront on the equipment. Chances are that even if those tools performed at their peak capacity, they would still fall well short of providing the performance and reliability you need to complete the tasks ahead of you. It would also require a much greater time and resource commitment than if you were to just invest in the more powerful “industrial” versions of the equipment that’s needed and proven to get the job done right.

The same is true of the many mobile technology options available to retailers.

Retrofitting tablets and smartphones with rugged cases, mobile credit card readers and camera-based barcode scanning applications may work in some situations, but they still leave you and your associates vulnerable to a host of issues that can lead you to lose sales in the short term and customers in the longer term. Plus, as Darren Koffer thoroughly explained in his most recent blog post, the Android mobile devices you give your warehouse workers may not be the devices for your front-line workers and vice versa. You really need to think about the specific work environment, workflow and worker when building your retail mobility solution ecosystem.

Learn from the Past to Secure Your Performance Edge in the Future

Eighty-five (85) percent of retail executives surveyed for Zebra’s 2020 Shopper Study believe that shoppers have a better experience in stores where associates use the latest technology to assist them. Many associates agreed, saying that mobile devices and other technology tools help them quickly find correct prices and products and answer questions, which saves customers time. They are able to order out-of-stock items for customers from the middle of the store floor; suggest complementary products; provide coupons or discounts and even help with the returns and exchange process among many other things – using just their company-issued mobile device.

Yet, these benefits are only realized by store associates and shoppers when the mobile technology works as it should: when it can quickly scan the barcode on the shelf or item, sync with back-end systems to retrieve real-time inventory levels and process returns or receive guidance from prescriptive analytics solutions about the “next best action” that should be taken to ensure shelves are stocked and items are in the right place.

At a more fundamental level, retailers must ensure that the mobile devices they give their workers will reliably power on – and stay on – all shift (or all day) long. That means that the devices must be able to work despite being dropped onto hard concrete floors, tossed into restocking carts, bumped while on workers’ belts or used in freezers. It also means that the device must consistently connect to the Wi-Fi, quickly process associate requests (shoppers can be impatient) and be remotely configurable to maintain proper security protections. It also helps when the devices’ batteries are hot swappable, since it can be difficult to take even a single device out of service for a prolonged recharging period. Store associates depend on their devices all shift long, and sharing devices means that someone is always without one.  

That is why many retailers are now finding enterprise-grade mobility solutions to be better suited for their business environments and are moving away from consumer-grade options.

Office Depot is one of them.

Its customers, which are mostly businesses, demand fast and flexible item purchase and pickup options – something that the retailers’ previous mobile devices just weren’t capable of delivering. Store associates found it difficult to assist customers on the store floor and the devices weren’t capable of elevating Office Depot’s supply chain operations to “on demand” efficiency levels. Picking buy online, pickup in store (BOPIS) and ship from store orders was very challenging due to the lack of associate collaboration tools, as was confirming the status of orders. Both customers and the retailer were often left frustrated.

So, Office Depot decided to blaze a new path forward; it invested in a new, customer-centric enterprise-grade Android mobility solution. (Though, as you can see in the below video, that solution included the adoption of a few different device models. Office Depot understands that different workers need different mobile computing and scanning capabilities to effectively do their jobs.)

My advice? Follow its lead.

I’m not saying that you must use the exact same handheld mobile computers in the exact same way, or that ring scanners are best for your workers. But, if you want to gain an operational edge in a highly evolving and extremely competitive retail environment, you should ensure that you’re only giving your workers enterprise-grade rugged devices.  

I’ll explain the four very specific reasons why in my next blog post. Stay tuned in here on Your Edge, or subscribe to the bi-weekly blog roundup email to ensure you don’t miss it.

Anees Haidri
Anees Haidri

Anees Haidri is currently the Director of Vertical Strategy for Retail where he is responsible for positioning growth opportunities and providing thought leadership within retail for Zebra Technologies. He has more than 15 of experience within the retail industry and has deployed multiple, large scale edge device solutions for a Fortune 30 retailer. He also has over 20 years of experience in building customer focused mobility solutions within a variety of industries.  

Previously, Mr. Haidri served as a Sr. Director of Technology at The Home Depot, where he managed high performing teams aimed at building customer-focused technology solutions for stores & merchandising.  

He holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Rutgers University. 

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