Retail Investment in Mobile Technology

With everything that is happening with the collapse of the world financial markets and the impact it will inevitably have on retail sales, it makes me wonder what will happen with investment in retail technology, and in particular for us, what does it me to mobile retail software sales.

For those companies in a financial position there are a lot of good reasons to make technology investments including competitive advantage, cost management/reductions, and maximizing ROI.

Reason 1: Competitive Advantage

One of the more compelling reasons to invest in technology during a market downturn is to gain a competitive advantage over your rivals.   Historically companies have trimmed IT expenditures during a recession, but take a look at the case of Best Buy during the post 9/11 contraction, The Inevitable Recession: Start Planning for the Rebound Now, which describes how Best Buy was able to leap frog past Circuit City and CompUSA.  This IT investment allowed Best buy to become the dominant player in consumer electronics.  Best Buy is also continuing this strategy with their Napster acquisition, Best Buy completes tender offer for Napster.

This is the basic strategy of leveraging an advantage to develop or extend a competitive advantage.  So look at anyone doing reasonably well in the retail space to be extending their advantage.  Take for instance Wal-Mart ignites a toy war.  Thus if you have the ability to improve your retail systems when your competitors are unable you may be able to create a sustainable strategic advantage.

Reason 2: Cost Management

When the economy is doing well and everybody is making money, management rarely cares about controlling retail costs.  However, in an economic downturn saving every penny becomes increasingly important.  In retail some of the more important ways to manage costs are reducing inventory costs, while still maintaining adequate stock levels, and reducing personnel costs.

The interesting part, is that these are the same areas that mobile technology can make a real difference.  If you want to manage your inventory levels, you first must have an accurate count of inventory.  This is where Mobile Inventory Management really makes a difference by providing accurate back of the store inventory changes (Receiving, Transfers, and Mark Out of Stock) as well as Physical Inventory and Cycle Count applications.  When combined with the store’s POS records, management has everything required to make well informed decisions.

Reason 3: Maximize ROI

In the past, deploying a new mobile application meant deploying a new mobile infrastructure (mobile terminals, mobile printers, and a wireless LAN), but with the capabilities of modern mobile terminals, adding a new application can be just a matter of loading new software on the terminal.  Thus if a company has already deployed a mobile infrastructure, they can achieve a significant follow on ROI with a small incremental investment,

In many cases this opportunity existing since retailers have deployed a new infrastructure, but have only deployed a minimal set of applications.  Often this investment was part of a DOS-to-CE migration that  was limited to redeploying existing applications with a terminal emulator.  In this scenario, there is a great opportunity to take advantage of the mobile infrastructure that is in place to deploy new mobile retail applications.

Conclusion: Time to Invest in Mobile Retail Technology

Therefore despite the difficult economic environment, it may still be time for your company to invest in Mobile Retail Technology.  A small investment now may be the strategic difference between just surviving the current business environment, and creating a long-term strategic advantage for your company.

Mobile Signature Capture Applications

Customer Signature

Customer Signature Form

If you’ve ever signed for a package from FedEx or UPS, then you’ve used a mobile signature capture application. While signing for deliveries is one of the more popular uses of mobile signature capture, it is just one of many mobile applications that utilize signature capture.

Mobile Signature Capture Applications

In mobile field service applications, one of the most important drivers for the mobile application is a signature capture. Whether this is to authorize payment, verify the delivery or service, or just identifying the person performing the task. All of these uses of mobile signature capture are used to provide a further level of confirmation that the person signing is authorized, similar to signing a credit card receipt.

Here is a sample of some common mobile signature capture applications:

  • Proof of Delivery (POD)/Route Accounting (RTA)
    The application is built to track the delivery of packages to a customer, or multiple customers on a route.  In this application, the recipient of the delivery signs on the terminal to indicate that they have received a delivery.
  • Mobile Point of Sale (MPOS)
    In MPOS the application provides a mobile version of the store’s checkout register.  The clerk uses a handheld to scan the customer’s items to be purchased and the signature is used to authorize the credit card payment.
  • Service Authorization
    A Field Service technician uses the mobile application to track the services provided for their customers, and the customer signs the terminal to authorize the performance of the service.
  • Inspection Verification
    In Inspection applications the inspector uses the terminal to provide a thorough and structured inspection of the site.  Upon completion, the inspector signs the terminal to verify that they have performed the specified inspection.

Saving the Signature

In principle signature capture is very straightforward, just sign on the line and the application saves the signature.  But as they say, the devil is in the details.  All signature capture solutions start the same way, they capture mouse events as the user draws their signature.  It’s once the signature has been captured the question becomes how to store the signature.  The typical choices are to save the signature as an image file or as a meta representation of the signature.  As usual there are advantages to each.

In the case where the signature is stored as an image file (.gif, .jpeg, or .png), the advantage is the ease of drawing the signature.  Just display the image file.  However what you gain in ease of use, you lose in efficiency and flexibility.  The size of a typical image signature is a minimum of 1KB and increases as the size of the image increases.  Individually this is not a large file, but as the number of signatures grows, the data space can become significant.  Also, scaling of the image can be a challenge.

The other method to store the signature is to save a condensed representation of the data that can be easily reconstructed.  In this case, the signature is saved as a series of strokes that is then stored in a compressed format.  This advantage of this method is that the file can easily be generated when signing and typically creates a signature in the 100-200 byte range.   However, in order to display the signature a program must be run to convert the data back to an image format.  In addition, there is not a standard format for storing the signature information so a different format and display program is required by each vendor.

StepOne Mobile Applications

StepOne Systems provides a wide selection of mobile signature capture applications.  If you are interested in mobile signature solution contact us.

Motorola Introduces the MC17T

Motorola has recently introduced the MC17T, the long awaited successor to the MC17.  While offering the same great ergonomics of the MC17 and many new features and improvements, the key difference is the addition of a touch sensitive display.  This makes an already great customer terminal into an awesome customer terminal.

With this small change in the user interface, the application possibilities for this terminal expand exponentially.  Instead of being limited to custom applications specifically written to use the five supplied buttons, applications can use all of the windows graphical components including buttons, sliders, tab pages, etc.  And with the ability to use a virtual keypad, users can now type in short text.  All told, this is a huge step forward for application capabilities on the Motorola MC17T.

Although adding a touch screen is a huge feature, it is not all that is new.  Motorola has obviously listened to their customers to take this terminal to the next step.  The processor has been upgraded to an Intel PXA270; 32 bit; 520 MHz, the radio now also supports 802.11a, and a 1 GB SD storage card has been added to store more applications and data.

In addition to the hardware enhancements, there have been several improvements to the standard installed software.  They have added the Motorola PocketBrowser, MSP Client, and AppCenter programs.  All of which make the terminal more useful for an out-of-the box configuration.

Of these the most important is the inclusion of the Motorola PocketBrowser in the standard feature set.  With this browser and the full Internet Explorer 6.0 browser supplied with CE, the possibility of real lightweight mobile applications is becoming a reality.   Actually StepOne is currently developing a set of next generation mobile applications based on this technology that we are introducing later in the year.

With the inclusion of touch screen, a faster processor, more memory, PocketBrowser, and much more the MC17T is an ideal customer facing terminal.  All that is needed are great applications that take advantage of the terminal such as StepOne‘s Escorted Registry or next generation mobile applications.  If you are interested in the MC17T, and customer facing applications, keep StepOne in mind.

Related Links:

RFID Solutions in Pittsburgh

I hadn’t realized just how much RFID development is being done in Pittsburgh until I spent the day at the South West Pennsylvania RFID Solutions Group’s Showcase. This showcase was designed to be both a conference on the business of RFID and a showcase of RFID solutions.

What was surprising was the number of companies in Pittsburgh that are developing RFID based hardware and solutions.  Just a sampling of the companies that presented were:

ClearCount – Tracking of surgical sponges in the hospital operating room
MobileAspects – A cabinet solution for Item Management in hospitals
McKesson – An RFID enabled pharmacy picking application
Tego – High Memory Passive UHF tags
Inteligistics – RFID enabled shipping containers

The University of Pittsburgh also has the RFID Center of Excellence led by Marlin Mickle, one of the leaders in RFID technology.  This center is focused on developing RFID technology including RFID tag and antenna technology, RFID standards validation, and developing innovative RFID solutions.

In addition, through the South West Pennsylvania RFID Solutions Group,the RFID Center of Excellence, and local investment community, a whole support structure is being developed in Pittsburgh for technology adopters and new companies entering the RFID space.  This will really make an a huge difference in developing RFID solutions and making Pittsburgh a center for RFID technology.

Real Mobile Blogging

Posted by mobile phone:
So this is the ultimate in mobile blogging. I just set up the WordPress Mobile Plugin http://wordpressmobile.mobi for our blog and now I,m just sitting on my couch at home, blogging away. The editor is not the best, but still way cool.

So give our mobile blog a try on your mobile device and let me know how it goes.

-John