Mobile POS: A Retail Game Changer

By Paul St. George, APG Cash Drawer — July 07, 2012

Many years ago, while shopping at our local home and garden center, the store manager wheeled out a spare point-of-sale terminal and plugged it into the power and data outlets. In that store’s garden area, mobile POS line busting was created. A couple of years later, that same store had a terminal on a cart with batteries underneath and a rubber wireless antenna on the back. Both solutions were state of the art for their time. Now jump forward to today. Store clerks are walking around with tablets and handheld devices completing transactions and emailing us our receipts. My how mobile POS solutions have changed over the years. With the recent advent of IP-addressable devices, mobile POS is again ready for advancements.

New technology brings new capability. Within the retail POS hardware industry, new technology is driving change in retail hardware platforms. Cloud-based software, coupled with the emergence of powerful and feature-rich mobile devices, offers new possibilities for retailers to better serve and engage their shoppers at the point of purchase.

Typical construction of a point-of-sale terminal is centered on a PC workstation. These terminals are often positioned in one or more fixed locations in the retail store. They might be served by an array of peripheral devices: a touch display, a customer pole display, a handheld scanner, a receipt printer, and a cash drawer. These peripheral devices are typically configured with serial or USB interfaces and connect to a port on the PC workstation dedicated to each device. Software developers engage each device through OPOS or native DLLs drivers created by the hardware manufacturer.

In this setting, a shopper is compelled to queue up at the POS terminal and stage their goods for itemized sale. By contrast, software functionality and mobile device technology allow a retailer to bring the point-of-sale transaction to the shopper at their point of purchase. With mobility, a retailer can increase shopper loyalty by providing a more convenient, more personalized, and more interactive transaction experience.

Building a Mobile POS
A purpose-built point-of-sale solution can be developed from the ground up to support mobile transaction faster than ever. Hardware manufacturers are creating new solutions to support this trend. By selecting hardware that maximizes the benefits of a mobile transaction, a retailer can significantly improve system performance and significantly reduce the total cost of the system. However, the current PC-centric workstation architecture presents several technical challenges as a retailer chooses to deploy a mobile POS solution.

As the mobility space matures, so will the product offerings. We are seeing a transition from consumer-grade operating systems and hardware platforms to purpose-built hardware and OS platforms. These purpose-built platforms are designed for the rigors of retail. The hardware is designed to support extended battery life and survive the ill-fated drop test. The new operating systems have all the necessary features built in—no longer is there the need to go to the app store for the third-party plug-in. Even the concern over the tablet and handheld device walking out the store has been addressed. If the device is stolen, it can be completely shut down and tracked with the internal GPS signal.

An Easy Transaction
Going mobile will also force the retailer to rethink the meaning of customer service. Imagine a customer coming out of a dressing room with an arm full of clothes, “ready to buy.” They look at the register queue, shake their head, and walk out of the store, frustrated, without making a purchase. A clerk with a handheld terminal could have scanned the items and tendered the transaction. If the size wasn’t right, he or she could have used a tablet to place the order online or find the item in a neighboring store. Why issue a rain check forcing the customer to come back to the store? In these simple examples everyone leaves the store happy.

The scenarios above showed how a mobile credit transaction performed on a smartphone or tablet can improve the quality of the shopping experience while reducing the time of the retail transaction. The latest MSRs can connect directly to the audio jack of a mobile device making it easy to envision a completely paperless transaction where the retailer simply swipes the shopper’s card and e-mails a receipt. This approach can make credit or debit transactions robust, secure, low-cost, fast, and very mobile.

However, retailers process multiple types of payment methods, including the most traditional form of payment for goods and services: cash. At first glance, mobile POS transactions and cash payment processing don’t intuitively go hand-in-hand.

Or, do they? Can a retailer offer the same convenience and highly engaged transaction experience when processing a cash transaction? Can the cash handling processes be secure? The answer to each of these questions is a resounding: Yes.

Truly mobile POS transactions for all transaction types can become a reality by simply adjusting the paradigm—our frame of reference—by moving the POS hardware architecture from a PC-centric (host/peripheral) model to a peer-level IP-enabled device model.

Retailers can augment or even supplant their traditional POS hardware platform and achieve a secure and mobile POS transaction by deploying cash drawers, printers, cameras, and other devices as IP-enabled peer-level devices. Devices with IP-enabled functionality are not peripherals and they do not require a PC workstation to support their configuration and operation. IP-enabled devices can help lower costs beyond the reduction of POS terminals. While a traditional POS system might still be required in some situations, the number of terminals can be reduced through the use of mobile devices. It is not unreasonable to see the store of the future supporting one or two fixed terminals and five or more handheld devices “roaming” with sales clerks. These handheld units do not necessarily need the support of individual printers and cash drawer peripherals. These mobile devices can interface and share one or two strategically placed IP-based printers and cash drawers, further reducing the cost of the overall system.

Embrace Security
Though mobility has some challenges, security needn’t be one of them. While cash payment processing in a mobile environment requires planning; security of the transaction need not be a concern. In fact, security can be enhanced in new ways with IP-enabled devices. For instance, an IP-enabled cash drawer offers a simple and effective means to ensure that a cashier can open a cash drawer only when in close proximity. Additionally, new system-generated actions can occur in response to exceptional events. Imagine a smart phone or tablet that captures an image as the retail transaction occurs through its built-in camera. Envision a cash drawer that directly activates a remote IP-enabled, surveillance camera to record activities taking place during a ‘No Sale’ transaction. Consider a software agent on a remote host that accepts a prompt directly from a cash drawer and sends a SMS text message to the store manager’s mobile device when an unexpected cash access event occurs. Each of these actions, and many more, are possible today with the integration of IP-enabled POS hardware.

As retailers continually look for new ways to engage and retain shoppers more effectively, deploying systems that bring the retail transaction to the shopper can achieve this goal. “Going Mobile” allows new freedom to store design, POS layout, and overall customer service.

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