Struggling, but fighting back
Written by: Kate O’Flaherty | Published:
Retailers including John Lewis appreciate the value of two-way radios; credit: Motorola Solutions & DCRS

The retail sector has seen multiple store closures this year, increasing the pressure to innovate through two-way radios, body-worn cameras, RFID and other wireless technologies. Kate O’Flaherty reports

Toys R Us, Maplin, Mothercare and House of Fraser were just a few of the casualties in 2018 as consumers chose to shop online instead of visiting bricks-and-mortar locations.

According to some retail experts, this is leading to a reluctance to invest in technology – which itself paradoxically makes it even more difficult to compete. However, others point to the growth of body-worn cameras and digital two-way radios in shopping centres and large outlets, in addition to RFID boasting more advanced capabilities.

Retailers need to prevent revenue loss from shoplifting, as well as protecting customers and staff. This is leading to a focus on safety and security, a retail source tells Land Mobile. “In today’s society, we see constant security threats, so we have to be as proactive as we possibly can. We need systems that are robust and afford the ability to grow and expand.”

Indeed, digital two-way radios are widely being used in larger stores. But in the UK, retailers don’t always ‘get’ how radio can benefit a small shop, says Andrew Wilson, Syndico’s managing director. “In the US, everyone uses two-way radios in small stores. In a large store, radios allow people to ask questions. Meanwhile, in a small store, people will have to pop out the back, often leaving one person on the shop floor. They need radios for health and safety – and there is also the practicality of customers wanting to speak to someone.”

Wilson points out that cheap solutions are available: a radio doesn’t have to be complex or sophisticated. “Push-to-talk is enough,” he says.

He thinks retailers are often put off by the ‘marketing speak’ used to sell systems they do not need and cannot afford. “One of the things that has put retailers off using radio is that people keep trying to sell them expensive and extremely complex systems, which no-one ever needs. They simply need three or four channels: for example, management, facilities, cleaning and a general channel.”

At a time when margins are tight, two-way radios can help cut costs, Wilson points out. “There are productivity gains because you can reduce people on the shop floor.”

He cites the example of Primark, which is testing Hytera digital unlicensed radios in two different stores. “The feedback we have had from the two stores is phenomenal. I would always take the users’ feedback; they know best.”

Cutting costs
But not all industry experts are seeing high demand from retailers. Ola Gwozdz, head of innovation and business development at PMR Products, says the reseller is getting less demand from the sector. While there has been an increase in crime, retailers want to cut costs where they can, she says.

“It seems pretty stagnant in terms of investment – it needs someone to join the dots. This should be coming from the top: the government must make moves to support retail and help them invest,” says Gwozdz.

Some areas of retail are still demanding the use of radio, including ‘town watches’, Gwozdz says. However, these are “working harder” and are “more overwhelmed than before”.

She adds: “The issue is, they can only exist if retailers pay to be part of the schemes. But if retailers are closing down, there isn’t enough money to keep them running. It’s a sad reality and has happened in general over the past 12 months.”

Radio manufacturers agree that retailers are under pressure: they have to improve the customer experience and respond quickly to what consumers are asking for, says Ricardo Gonzalez, MSSSI VP EMEA, strategy and marketing at Motorola Solutions.

He points to increasing pressure for transformation, fuelled by extra competition from online. “So, a lot of retailers are looking to increase the safety and productivity of employees,” says Gonzalez.

In fashion retail, he says radio helps keep staff well informed and more efficient. “Also, it’s about voice, and safety and security, including how to respond to an emergency,” he adds.

At the same time, group communications are increasingly important, says Gonzalez – and some retailers are asking for added functionality such as alerts and ticketing.

He says the vendor is seeing high demand from shopping malls, citing the example of one customer in London using MOTOTRBO digital radios across 100 stores. “This covers the whole management of the shopping mall and security when it is open, as well as when it’s closed.”

Rugged is best for retail radio, but consumerisation is still an issue that needs to be overcome. Devices such as the iPhone just aren’t suited for heavy-use retail environments, says Wilson, citing the example of one of his customers, which was previously using Apple devices. “Shattered screens are an issue and it’s a cost in terms of the number you need to have repaired. Rugged durability is key to retailers.”

Despite the fact employees might want a more consumer-style device, Wilson points out: “There is a complete distinction between two-way radio and smartphones – I see them as a hammer and a screwdriver. People have been saying two-way radio would be killed by the mobile phone for two years. It hasn’t happened.”

In addition, Leigh Moody, UK MD at SOTI, says: “While the typical consumer handset has a shelf life of just two years, the durable qualities of the rugged device make it a far more cost-effective solution for retailers.”

Another piece of hardware increasing in popularity is the body-worn camera. Wilson says the distributor is “seriously selling” body-worn cameras to retailers, especially shopping centres, to help improve security.

Wilson adds: “One of the best things is, they don’t have to get used. Because they are visible, the deterrent factor is often enough to stop incidents from happening.”

According to Wilson, the cameras are also in demand in supermarkets: “Sadly, we have heard of people at checkouts getting food tins thrown at them.”

Wilson highlights the fact that body-worn cameras “are not hugely expensive items” and can last up to seven years. “Also, there are savings on insurance, and they’re protecting your employees and making your shopping centre a safer place to be.”

At the same time, using data is an increasing trend in retail, says Yoyo Wen, channel marketing manager at Hytera. “Demand for data applications is increasing. Reasons for this include increased pressure on customer service and a need for better efficiency of workflows, including warehouse retrieval and inventory.”

Data offers great potential, but GDPR is a challenge in retail – especially when applied to the information collected by body-worn video.

The retail source tells Land Mobile that GDPR means “we are more stringently managed now”. He adds: “We had to quickly review what we do and dispense with the information we didn’t need to maintain.”

Merging online and physical retail: the potential of in-store chatbots
As retail shifts increasingly online, there has also been a move towards virtual assistants. Andy Mauro is CEO of Automat, which offers a ‘chatbot’ facility online for brands including Vichey by L’Oréal.

The firm is now hoping to move its virtual chat service into stores via customers’ mobiles.

“Skincare can be a tricky product to purchase, and buying online is difficult: you have to read reviews and shift through information,” says Mauro. “So, we provided virtual skincare advisors on Vichey’s website and we have started to discuss putting these in stores.”

Automat discovered from a survey that many women didn’t want to talk to people in the store. “They are turning to their mobile phones and going to Google or Amazon.”

In-store, the service would be accessed from people’s own devices, by scanning a QR code. This would open a chat facility in WhatsApp or Facebook messenger for the consumer to seek advice from a chatbot.

Improved RFID
Some firms are already saving cash by taking advantage of RFID solutions. Marks & Spencer is famously using the technology. Meanwhile, Tesco says SML’s deployment of RFID technology in its F&F clothing stores has been a key part of helping it reduce operating costs by £1.5bn over three years.

In fact, the retailer says RFID has helped 54 stores in the UK get back into profit. In addition, backroom stock has been reduced by 19 per cent and stock availability has risen from 93 per cent to 96 per cent over the course of two years.

Dean Frew, CTO and SVP of RFID solutions at SML Group, says more retailers are stepping up to invest. “Retailers have a huge inventory accuracy problem. It’s hard to count things as they move from factory through to store.”

According to Frew, the benefits of RFID include a change in the experience for the consumer at the check-out. “There are retailers in the UK that believe they are losing sales as, when there are queues, people will drop their basket and leave.”

But RFID has an image problem: many see it as an ‘old’ technology. Dr Sithamparanathan Sabesan, CEO and co-founder of PervasID, says he has to overcome this when talking to retail CEOs. “They see RFID as an old technology – it has been around since World War II,” he points out.

Meanwhile, previous iterations of the technology were often too expensive and didn’t work very well. “They weren’t getting accuracy, so retailers think it won’t work again,” says Dr Sabesan.

PervasID is a university spin-out, which according to Dr Sabesan has improved RFID. “We have solved problems with inaccuracy using RFID and we can sell the solution at a much cheaper cost.”

However, retailers also need to prove the technology works to make investing worth it. “They need to see how they will get return on investment,” says Dr Sabesan.

To prove this, he says retailers can either buy hardware outright or lease the equipment to trial the technology.

He points out that viewing stock inventory in real time allows retailers to see what is in the back storage area and not out for sale. In addition, it can track shoplifting and is also labour-saving. “They don’t have to do things manually and it will automate the whole thing,” Dr Sabesan says.

Currently, retailers put RFID tags in their price labels and use a hand reader to manually scan them. This is quick and accurate but doesn’t provide real-time inventory, he adds.

He thinks it makes sense to replace hand readers with fixed devices deployed in the ceiling. “You will have ceiling systems able to filter a signal to tags beneath them and then back to a ceiling antenna to a centralised server to tell us what is in each area.”

The retail sector is struggling and the unrelenting growth of online shopping will probably see it suffer more. But experts agree that this should push retailers even harder to innovate. Those that survive will likely be the retailers offering engaging services at the same time as improving staff efficiency and safety though two-way radios and associated devices.

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