March 6, 2013, 3:44 PM

Obstacles overcome, REI registers the benefits of mobile checkout

Employees equipped with iPod Touch devices keep lines from forming, but the Wi-Fi better work.

Lead Photo

Outdoor goods retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. has been rolling out a fleet of iPod Touch devices to employees in its 128 U.S. stores that will allow them to help customers look up product information online, check inventory availability, place online orders and pay for items without waiting in line, says Mark McKelvey, REI’s divisional vice president, retail solutions.

For now each location is using just a handful of the devices while managers test how to use them most effectively, but REI plans to make mobile shopping more prominent in stores over time, he says. For example, in future stores, McKelvey says he foresees saving square footage devoted to fixed checkout counterss by instead adding more mobile checkout devices to the floor.

REI chose iPod Touch devices because they fit easily into employees’ pockets when moving around, McKelvey says. The devices use Starmount Inc.’s Engage software to check out products, services, memberships and gift cards. They take credit cards, gift cards, merchandise credits and even dividends from REI shareholders, he says. Customers sign for payments digitally and receive receipts via e-mail. Later, the iPods will also be able to look up REI member information and process orders placed online for in-store pickup, he says. The base price for an iPod Touch is $199. 

The retailer has faced some obstacles. “The overall solution is a little complicated,” McKelvey says. For example, when the iPods first rolled out, some stores had trouble with poor wireless connections to the Internet, making the devices useless to employees, he says. So, REI tweaked its in-store wireless networks until they all delivered a reliable level of service.

Other stores needed to figure out how best to distribute the devices, which would sometimes run out of battery midway through an associate’s shift. Some stores solved that problem by placing fresh devices throughout the floor and others by keeping a replacement device  charging in the back room that an employees could use when necessary.

Finally, REI learned it needed to check the individual iPods to see if they were running the latest software—older versions sometimes caused glitches—and if they weren't, the retailer asked employees to download updates manually, he says.

With those fixes made, the devices are proving most useful by enabling customers to avoid long lines in stores, especially on weekends and holidays, he says. Some stores also find the mobile devices helpful during used-gear sales that REI  occasionally holds outside stores on the sidewalk, or in checking out items that are tough to transport, such as car-top carriers, so that customers need only move them once to the loading area, rather than first to a register, he says.

While many customers are embracing the ability to check out in the aisle, McKelvey cautions that store employees will have to learn how to identify when shoppers are ready and not approach them too early. Otherwise, they may block impulsive or last-minute buys, he says.

“If you’re going to do this, you have to do it right from the get-go,” says Peter Sheldon, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. “As soon as you give employees devices you are fundamentally shifting customer expectations.” For example, surveys show that most U.S. consumers expect store associates with mobile devices to be able to use them to check product pricing and check additional inventory available online or at other store locations, he says. REI associates can do all those things on the iPod Touch devices.

REI is No. 64 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.

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