July 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

One Big Store

(Page 2 of 3)

With access to the JCP.com web site, employees now can easily find the desired item and place the order for the customer. While he would not specify volume, Gebhardt says, “Every day we have many orders placed from our stores.” In many cases, customers order items that the store does not stock or that are sold-out sale items. The web inventory thus expands the selection available in each store.

Customers have made it clear through exit surveys that they like it when an associate offers to check online for an item not available in the store. The percentage of customers who call themselves highly satisfied with their shopping experience doubles when employees extend that offer compared with when they don’t, Gebhardt says.

That will pay dividends in the future, he says. “It’s not just about the sale we make that day, it’s about the loyalty we build in that customer and their probability of returning to J.C. Penney the next time they need something,” he says.

Testing all graphics

Placing orders for items not available in the store is the primary use of the Internet connection to the checkout register; the next most common is checking inventory in another store, Gebhardt says.

And there are other uses. When J.C. Penney this year launched a new brand called American Living, it ran the commercials for that brand as videos on its web site and played them on store POS displays that were not in use. Gebhardt says the company tests every graphical element on the web site to make sure it will render properly on POS systems, and in a few cases has blocked web graphics from downloading to the store to prevent overtaxing the bandwidth. Each store’s Internet connection points to a store-specific URL that can screen out web site graphics that could erode performance at the point of sale; it also eliminates any price differences between the stores and the web.

J.C. Penney also has tested web-enabled kiosks that let customers access JCP.com on their own, but decided against deploying them, Gebhardt says. He says the retailer is focusing on helping employees provide better service, not on self-service technologies, with the exception of kiosks that customers use for viewing online gift registries.

In fact, J.C. Penney’s vision is that “JCP.com will become an indispensible tool for our store selling associates,” Gebhardt says. As an example of how the web can help associates, the retailer encourages them in their spare time to read the customer ratings and reviews on JCP.com to deepen their knowledge about the products they sell.

While the POS systems are connected to the web, associates can only access certain functions and cannot freely surf the Internet, Gebhardt says. The functions enabled require just a touch of a key, and training has not been an issue, he says. That’s especially true for associates hired since the new POS system was deployed as they learn about the web functions as part of their introduction to the company.

One web-enabled store

Two smaller retailers, Loser Kids and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., also say it has been easy to train associates to use web-based POS systems.

In both cases, they have touchscreen displays with buttons clerks tap to launch common functions, such as looking up a customer’s previous orders or inventory availability. The “dummy-proof” graphical interface has made it easy for employees to use the system, requiring only one hour of training by software provider CoreSense, says Tadd Crayton, general manager of Loser Kids. The retailer deployed a web-enabled POS system when it opened its first physical store last November after selling online since 1999.

Web-based POS systems are easy because of two trends: “Software today is easier to use and retail employees are more computer-savvy,” says Jason Jacobs, CEO of CoreSense. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a retail employee who hasn’t opened a web browser.”

Loser Kids and Biltmore Estate both limit the web sites clerks can access from the POS systems. Besides Biltmore’s own site, the only site store employees can get to is Weather.com, which helps them answer questions about the weather for guests to the 8,000-acre estate built around a Vanderbilt family mansion that is said to be the country’s largest privately owned residence.

Between the estate’s winery, inn, and gift and garden shops there are about 45 web-enabled POS terminals that provide ready access to inventory and customer history. CounterPoint SQL software from Radiant Systems Inc. allows employees to look up customer information in many ways, says Rebecca Taylor, retail systems and training manager.

“If a customer says, ‘I had a red wine I loved but I can’t remember the name of it,’ we can research it and make sure they get their hands on what they want,” Taylor says. Even if the customer only remembers the price or the date, that and the customer’s name are enough to quickly find the item purchased, whether it was bought at the estate or online. That’s a big help, Taylor says, because nearly half of the winery’s sales come from returning customers.

Order online, pick up at gate

The Radiant POS software and hardware, installed in 2006, also allows associates to check inventory availability at other locations around the estate and at the warehouse that services Biltmore’s e-commerce site. An associate can place an order for an item at another shop and have it waiting for the customer at the gatehouse near the exit, or order it from the web site for home delivery, Taylor says.

The web-based system also processes payment card transactions and has cut the average wait time from between 10 and 20 seconds to 3 seconds, she says. That speed is partly a result of the estate laying fiber optic cable last year to speed all its Internet connections in an effort to provide faster customer service.

For Loser Kids, the web connectivity at the point of sale is largely for ordering items from its online assortment-which is four times larger than the 8,000 SKUs in the store in San Marcos, Calif.-for next-day delivery to the store. The retailer of skateboarding gear and apparel moves items from its warehouse to the store each day, Crayton says.

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