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Consumer-grade smartphones in retail: More risks than rewards?

The UK’s end-of-year holiday shopping season has quickly grown to encompass US imports like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. While masses of shoppers flocking to their physical and online stores would appear to be a blessing for any brand, retailers are having to address a rapidly rising number of logistical nightmares associated with the expanded sales rush.

This is unfortunately being heavily exacerbated by retailer smartphone selection strategies. In an industry like retail where competition is fierce and a mere second's delay in service can lose sales, consumer-grade smartphones are actually exposing retailers to serious security, productivity and customer service risks.

For example, a key concern that highlights the challenges associated with consumer-grade devices is that, while the holiday shopping season is now over, stores are having to deal with aftermath of returns. According to the Wall Street Journal, consumers are now returning about $60 billion (£39bn) worth of merchandise during the whole holiday season – about 20 per cent of a year’s total. This brings with it a whole host of customer service and retail warehousing challenges.

Retailers BYOD misadventures

From a customer service perspective, dealing with a flood of returns and exchanges means that front line sales staff need to be equipped with the tools to deal with all customer enquiries and have inventory information at their fingertips more so than over normal sales periods.

This is where the popularity of the BYOD trend or providing consumer-grade smartphones may hinder retailers, and if staff are not equipped with appropriate tools, they will take matters into their own hands wherever possible.

However, while the use of consumer-grade smartphones may at first glance appear to provide efficiency gains, it is not right for all business sectors. Retailing is a sector where this trend is not appropriate.

BYOD challenges in retail

For retailers willing to let employees select or bring their own devices, the IT department has to deal with a range of systems, products and platforms. While sales staff may find increased satisfaction, IT teams may find maintaining and integrating these devices is a complicated, if not impossible, task. Unsurprisingly, security is one of the top concerns when it comes to using mobile devices to access sensitive company data. Smartphones are designed to access and share data in the cloud, increasing the potential for data to be duplicated and moved between applications.

Additionally, problems like insufficient battery life can lead to costly and potentially dangerous delays due to missed communications. Consumer smartphones often suffer from poor battery life, leaving them unsuitable for long working days or use across shifts. For retail staff, a constant connection to retail business systems, as well as to each other, is crucial. This is something that smartphones just can’t provide. Similarly, consumer devices lack the durability required in a fast-paced retail environment. Impact and dropped devices can easily damage devices not equipped to cope.

Guaranteed voice quality is another issue that must be addressed. Retailers can be very large sites, with storerooms, elevators, basements and stairwells. With heavy returns loads, for example, staff will be traversing the premises more than usual, and it’s essential that within these areas, ‘dead zones’ or decreased voice communication quality aren’t encountered.

Additionally, with the online retail becoming increasingly popular, goods that once sat at the back of centrally located shops are now held in suburban warehouses, making returns for goods purchased online an even more complicated process. It is essential that these warehouses are equipped with suitable technology to maximise their potential in this ever-growing market. However, with campuses sprawling over thousands if not millions of square meters, and multiple buildings, workers may find themselves out of sight and reach of colleagues for extended periods of time. Consumer-grade smartphones limit the immediate connection workers can have to inventory management systems and barcode applications, for example.

Answering the BYOD challenges

Retailers can combat these challenges through the implementation of purpose-built mobile devices. These devices offer the benefits of a more mobile sales floor staff, but alleviate specific fundamental shortfalls of smartphones.

Security concerns are eliminated because purpose-built devices only operate over the confines of a retail store’s Wi-Fi network, preventing costs from spiralling due to loss, theft or extra security measures. They remove the challenge of loss of battery life through the ability to swap batteries at the beginning of a shift, with guaranteed continued life through to the end of a shift. They also negate the need for further precautions for durability as they are built to withstand challenging environments and can withstand multiple drops even onto concrete floors.

Furthermore, high voice quality is guaranteed across the entire site, including areas such as basements where smartphone network providers may not reach.

The retail sector certainly requires innovations that can assist in establishing competitive advantage and maintaining a profitable operation, especially over peak periods and their aftermath. However, allowing sales staff to bring their own devices does not fulfil this requirement. Front line sales staff require instant access to pricing, offers and stock information at their fingertips, allowing them to remain on the shop floor. This enables them to serve customers faster and better.

Retailers require purpose-built mobile handsets which are specifically designed with retailers in mind for optimum efficiencies and longevity to work smarter, not harder. Only then can they tackle customer service and logistical challenges no matter what changes to the peaks and troughs the industry experiences.

By Simon Longhurst, global alliances manager at Spectralink