As a provider of transaction products and help desk services, I’ve seen what happens
when Wi-fi technology is introduced into a retail environment.
Wi-fi, for most users, is a set of upside surprises. It’s lower in cost than many expect,
easier to implement than most believe, and its various benefits become more apparent
with each selling season.
In Wi-fi PC environment, there’s a static check out station, and a Wi-fi antenna.
Wire the latter to the former and you’re immediately “live.” This, and the hook to
the repeater or amplifier, is the only hard-wiring in the system. The average cost for
systems we see is $2500, compared to a conventional “plain vanilla’ check-out at $6000.
To realize Wi-fi’s value on the ISO / MLS level, you need only think about how you deal
with customers to see how much easier the process will be once your – and their –
paradigms are shifted a bit.
Rather than calling on individual merchants within a mall, focus your attention on mall
management, with the recommendation of installing a Wi-fi solution system-wide.
The direct benefits for them are very persuasive, to wit:
Wi-fi reduces transaction time for tenants. It also allows greater flexibility in checkout
siting, compared to traditional solutions. And if the merchant is new to the property,
it allows ultimate flexibility in store layout. Wi-fi also adapts to mobile checkout –
the ultimate friend of the seller of upscale or impulse merchandise, where time is
often a factor. More on that in a minute.
Wi-fi is also the enabler of nonconventional selling – the sidewalk or tent sale,
for example, because it accommodates these events with ease.
And Wi-fi’s power as a traffic-builder can’t be overstated. Think of the Starbucks model,
but don’t forget Border’s Books, Kinko’s and the millions of private Wi-fi networks that
have sprung up, seemingly overnight. Because we’re still in the early-adapting stages,
Wi-fi is a competitive advantage that can be leveraged in advertising, and marketing
in general, as an important infrastructural advantage.
Leading mall management companies are now aggressively using Wi-fi to draw
shoppers (and would-be shoppers). Among the latter group: US business travelers,
27 million of whom carry laptops and/or Wi-fi enabled PDAs or phones, and 40% of
whom are women. Wi-fi is now standard in virtually every laptop sold in the US, a result,
perhaps, of plummeting component costs. One more fact to ponder: the number of Wi-fi
embedded devices in the US is projected to top 226 million units by 2008. Good news for
everyone, with the exception of wireless/ cellular proponents.
Wi-fi in a closed loop environment is significantly more reliable than wireless.
Wireless communicates long distances, Wi-fi is better for shorter distances – ¼ mile
or so at the outside, but lacks the seamless wide connectivity of a cellular grid.
This will change over time, however, as mesh networking becomes more common.
Wi-fi also has some encumbrances, including blocking by structures, etc. But
work-arounds are do-able, and the cost of installing a Wi-fi network in a mall is low.
Antennas placed in the ceilings of individual stores, or on the mall concourse,
can be connected to one or more repeater for seamless coverage.
When a mall management firm buys into the Wi-fi concept, it gives the sales agent
a significant advantage over competitors who don’t offer that solution. There’s also
the logistical advantage of avoiding calls on individual merchants. Become the
endorsed provider for that store group and the management firm becomes your
agent for processing, with stores coordinating requirements through them. It’s no
different from any other utility, which is, indeed, what Wi-fi is. If you deal with the
right mall management, or property management company, you’ll also have an “in”
for other properties in their portfolio.
Some mall managers expect a small fee for you becoming a preferred provider;
others regard the program as a way to gain (or retain) tenants and do not assess a fee.
Getting back to merchant issues, Wi-fi in gives mall department and specialty stores
greatest flexibility with check out. And with the advent of Wi-fi terminals, you truly
can go to the point of buying decision. No more walking around the store with goods:
check-out is “everywhere,” and opportunities for increased impulse buying –
and reduced theft – are substantial.
This newest idea for the retail space is a mobile, self-contained check-out station,
with a Wi-fi antenna, and Wi-fi enabled cash drawers and point of sale. It’s incredibly
agile: essentially just a lightweight Rubbermaid cart with permanently mounted,
rechargeable battery back-up, Wi-fi antenna and local cash drawer PC and ETR.
Add bags, boxes and other sale supplies and you’re “ready to roll” wherever the
customer is. This is technology that’s been developed, tested and proved and is
now moving into retail environments.
For a new retail location aiming for maximum productivity, a Wi-fi mobile-enabled
station makes much more sense than a dedicated physical siting. They take up the
same space, but the one that’s mobile is agile, rather than stagnant. Theft prevention
is a big part of the reason that check-out is where it is - at the front of the store,
but hand-held, roving Wi-fi POP devices are now available. (Think car return at Avis.)
Sales agents would be wise to establish an alliance with a manufacturer, and offer
leases on mobile checkout. It’s a small ticket item this way, and merchants won’t
get stuck with obsolescence as technology continues to evolve.
ExaDigm (Santa Ana, CA)) is a good example of a manufacturer addressing retail
merchants’ concerns by offering a terminal, printer and operating system with
interchangeable modems – Wi-fi modem, wireless modem and wired modem,
so a single device can serve the merchant and maximize flexibility. This is technology
that’s adaptive to the store environment, wherever their mindset might be.
Adding Wi-fi to an existing PC cash drawer should be straightforward, and costs
negligible, for merchants who are replacing existing equipment. The trend is away
from electronic cash registers to PC cash drawers and software. If Wi-fi malfunctions
in this environment, reverting to the hardwired system is easy, because there’s
Wi-fi, like all technologies, is something that has to be learned, but it can give a
salesperson a significant advantage over those who are less tech-savvy. Anyone
can provide a credit card processing solution. Sales agents who focus on providing
greater value and flexibility will be the winners.
Biff Matthews is President of Thirteen Inc, the parent company of CardWare
International. He is one of 12 founding members of the ETA, serving on
its board, advisory board and committees. (740) 522-2150.
West Edmonton Mall in Alberta is the world’s largest shopping and
entertainment complex, and the largest Wi-fi-enabled entertainment
and retail center. Mall management expects to recoup incremental
investment costs in under 24 months and achieve a 120% ROI in 2007
from sales to tenants of Wi-fi access and voice-over-Wi-fi telephony.
Triple Five, the mall's parent firm, is considering a similar installation
for the Mall of America, Bloomington, MN.