April 1, 2009, 12:00 AM

Information, Please

The web brings a world of sales opportunities to retail store checkout counters.

It was a simple customer request, but one that store associates at clothing retailer Roots Canada Ltd. couldn’t accommodate-at least not easily or quickly.

“When customers would bring in a screenshot of the home page or other marketing-type image, the employee wasn’t always familiar with the product enough to know what the item was from often a black and white print-out,” says James Connell, senior director of e-commerce, digital marketing and new media at Roots. “We have many leather items that have similar characteristics but are made from different leathers that drive the price.”

Without ready access to the item identification number or other products details, it took employees a long time to answer the simple question ‘Do you have this in your store?’ And that prompted Roots to upgrade its Micros Retail System Inc. point-of-sale systems in the fall to access the Internet.

Now, workers click on an image at Roots.com to link to the price, style number and colors available so they can either find the item in the store, place the order online or gather enough data to call another store to find the item.

Shoot me an e-mail

Root’s isn’t alone. More retailers are eyeing the Internet as a vehicle to cross-sell and up-sell, capture customer data and fetch information at the point of sale. But before merchants swallow the cost and time of deploying such systems, they will want to consider the potential hiccups. Staff must be trained and web use should be monitored. There’s also the question of who gets credit for a web order placed in a physical shop.

Apple Inc. and Moosejaw Mountaineering are using the web during checkout to cater to shoppers’ environmental concerns-and to capture customer information, says Nikki Baird, managing partner at consultancy Retail Systems Research LLC. Both offer to e-mail receipts rather than print them. “This automatically gives the merchant e-mails of customers and the list of what they’ve bought for marketing purposes,” Baird says.

E-mail marketing is a good sales tool, but only if e-mail addresses are valid. That’s why AT&T; equipment retailer Market Share Inc. now uses the Internet to verify the authenticity of e-mail addresses associates enter at checkout. The service from Upaya Solution checks the address before an invoice is saved in the retailer’s POS system. If the e-mail is invalid, Upaya removes it from the customer’s record.

“We had always captured e-mail addresses to invite our customers to participate in a store survey the next day,” says CEO Chris Corcoran. “But, we had a high number of undeliverable e-mails.” Market Share, which has eight bricks-and-mortar shops and does about $5 million in annual sales, added the program in March, and it reduced the rate of undeliverable e-mail from 30% to 2%, Corcoran says.

Roots is using e-mail addresses captured in stores to drive more consumers to Roots.com, which offers a wider selection than stores, with about 1,200 SKUs verus 800 or so in a typical store. “If a customer purchases a leather bag in our store we like to send them an e-mail with a complementary item to that bag, as well as present that same complementary product online when the customer visits Roots.com,” Connell says.

It seems to be working. A recent poll by the retailer shows four in 10 shoppers at Roots stores have visited Roots.com compared to one in 10 before the store unveiled its web-enabled POS system.

The real-time data entry possible with a web-connected POS system also can reduce fraud. For instance, a shopper who makes a purchase with Roots loyalty points can no longer drive to another outlet and use the points again, something that would have been possible in the past when Roots had to wait until the end of the day to deduct loyalty points from customers’ accounts.

The new system also helps when customers demand sale prices that are no longer offered. “Sometimes they expect a promotion that has expired both online and in-store to be available because they have printed it off our web site and brought it into the store,” Connell says. Now staff access the web site and see if the sale has expired and additional details, he says.

Complex purchases

Ready access to information is especially important for retailers selling complex packages. That includes Market Share, which sells mobile phones that carry serial numbers along with calling plans that require activation of a phone number. Working with vendor OnSite Technology, Market Share put its accounting system online and connected it to its POS system from NetSuite Inc.

That’s allowed the retailer to serve customers much more quickly.

“We can immediately view past purchases, look up serial numbers, and do pretty much anything necessary for that customer,” Corcoran says. “All sales are updated in real time. There is no more batching or polling of sales activity. As items are added to our database, they are available to all stores immediately.”

With the new system, Market Share completes sales in one to three minutes as opposed to at least 10 minutes before, Corcoran says.

Upgrading point-of-sale systems to connect to the web can cost from the low hundreds to as much as $500 per terminal depending on the system, says Sahir Anand, research director, retail, at Aberdeen Group.

Anand says one of the most important features for merchants to add to their Internet POS systems is integration with the shopping cart on the retailer’s e-commerce site.

For example, if a consumer in a store is purchasing a pair of jeans and she wants to buy a sweater too but the shop doesn’t carry her size, she should not only be able to order it online, but also pay for both items on the spot. Too often retailers, even those with web-enabled POS systems, keep e-commerce and store payments separate. “Payment needs to be seamless, convenient and in one single spot,” he says.

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