July 11, 2005
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Retailer Improves Speed, Services with Wireless

The retail industry has used wireless technology for several years in its distribution channels, such as at warehouses and even in the loading zones of some stores, but the technology has had just limited adoption in the retail section, where the customers are. That's starting to change, as retailers get more comfortable with the technology and as retail applications become available for handheld devices appropriate for clerks and others to use in the store.

Case in point: Sports-goods retailer Modell's recently adopted 802.11-based networks and devices in its stores and distribution centers. Modell's, which has stores in 11 Northeastern states, is no stranger to wireless technology, having been an early adopter of Telzon 960 handhelds for inventory tracking as part of an initiative to achieve near-real-time inventory management several years ago.

But Telzon devices run over slow networks (they typically run at a maximum speed of 9.6Kbps, compared to 802.11b's maximum of 11Mbps), and their limited memory (just 1MB) meant the devices could not run many applications or store much data for those times they were out of signal range. Because Telzon radio networks are limited to a single access point in the store to receive signals, workers frequently moved out of range, forcing Modell's to largely limit their use to the receiving section at the back, for use as scanning devices as products were delivered, as well as for cycle counting, product transfer, and returns processing.

So CIO Hans Kantor is replacing the Telzon system with 802.11 access points and Windows CE-based handhelds from Symbol Technologies. The new system successfully piloted in several stores and now being rolled out across the company provides larger-area wireless coverage, since 802.11 supports multiple access points on the same network, as well as faster transmission speeds and greater memory to run more sophisticated applications throughout the stores and distribution centers. The coverage now extends from the loading dock to the front of the store, and even to the sidewalks if desired to support sidewalk sales and other such outside special promotions.

Among the new capabilities permitted through the 802.11-based system is point-of-sales transactions by roving staff. With a planned rollout this September, sales staff will be able to process credit card transactions (encrypted for over-the-air transmission) from their handhelds and then print receipts wirelessly from wireless printers hanging off the staff's belts. This system also ensures that transactions are quickly relayed to inventory management and ordering systems; the system will transmit sales information within 30 seconds, so databases are essentially always current.

"The objective is to keep sales associates on the floor for customer service," Kantor says, such as by looking up customer records and provide more informed shopping assistance and suggestions a key benefit for Modell's, which emphasizes personal service in its operations.

Kantor is also evaluating whether to use the wireless system to let security staff monitor closed-circuit cameras' video on their handhelds, so they can physically inspect the stores more often while still maintaining an overview of activities from the video feed, rather than being stuck in a monitoring room most of the day.

At the distribution centers, Modell's is using 802.11g access points, while the stores will have 802.11b access points. Because 802.11b and 802.11g devices can work on either network, this lets Modell's provide faster data transmission at the distribution centers where much more information is transmitted at any one time yet let devices work at any Modell's facility.

Kantor also expects that headquarters staff will be able to work more effectively when they go to the stores, since they'll be able to use their notebooks anywhere in the store and have access to both corporate resources (such as databases and email) and the Internet. The Telzon network didn't support such access.

In the initial deployments, Kantor says he's found no interference with the 802.11 wireless networks of nearby businesses, although that interference did sometimes occur on the Telzon's 900MHz spectrum.

Got deployment experience and lessons to share? Let us know at news@it-wireless.com.

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