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Who needs customer service?
New high-tech devices might give customers relief from hard-to-find, slow or even rude staff.
February 1, 2005: 11:38 AM EST
By Parija Bhatnagar, CNN/Money staff writer
IBM's in-store customer information kiosks and IBM's Pinehurst handheld devices.
IBM's in-store customer information kiosks and IBM's Pinehurst handheld devices.
IBM's "Everywhere display" can transform any solid surface into an interactive digital display.

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - When was the last time you walked into a store in a good mood, eager to spend money on some CDs and books, but instead walked out emptyhanded, carrying nothing but a frown on your face and a few choice words in your head?

Bad customer service is an everyday occurrence. Hold on, frustrated shoppers of America. Help may soon be on the way -- in the form of new-fangled technology.

Retailers are working with such technology leaders as IBM (Research) and Cisco Systems (Research) to develop high-tech devices that will ultimately define the "smart store" of the 21st century.

And this store of the future could very well be all about "Do-It-Yourself" shopping, where customers search for a product themselves using an interactive digital display projected onto a wall, or even the floor.

Rather than picking up the weekly sales circular on the way in, customers could opt for a handheld device that directs them to the correct product aisle, displays product prices, alerts shoppers to sale items and even lets them know if their favorite product is in stock.

Finally, shoppers would also scan and bag their own purchases.

A few of these next generation systems were unveiled to industry folk last month at the "X '05" prototype smart store as part of the National Retail Federation's (NRF) annual convention in New York.

For instance, New York-based IconNicholson, a developer of digital and radio frequency identification (RFID) systems that help retailers to track and manage inventory, has developed "smart shelves."

When a customer takes an item off a smart shelf, the shelf automatically registers that the item has been removed. A small screen on the shelf then displays how many pieces of that particular item remain on the shelf, helping merchants to better manage their inventory.

Additionally, it can also display how many items of a particular size are stocked on the shelf so that shoppers can immediately pick up an item in their size.

DIY checkout

The company's other useful innovation is the self-checkout station. Home Depot (Research), the No. 1 home-improvement retailer, already offers self-checkout lanes to its customers. It's relatively easy to use. Customers scan their items one by one, put them into a bag in the bagging station, and pay with either cash or credit.

IconNicholson's "hot spot" self-checkout stations takes the process one step further. Using them, customers can scan all items in their basket simultaneously and pay with a single tap of an RFID-enabled credit card.

"Customer needs have not changed dramatically from the days of mom and pop shops," said Rachael McBrearty, vice president with IconNicholson."They are still looking for one-on-one service and knowledgeable sales staff. But because of large amounts of merchandise and diverse customer needs, sales associates have a lot of information to deal with."

'Technology like RFID can provide both the sales associate and customer with instantaneous help to bring information together and fulfill a high level of customer service," she added.

IBM's "Everywhere Display" uses a simple wall-mounted projector to display an advertisement or a message anywhere in the store, even on the floor.

The really cool part, however, is that the projected image is interactive, acting almost as a touchscreen device that shoppers can use to get more information about a product or even directions on where to find an item in the store.

The "standing kiosk" from IBM is a loyalty card based system that's activated when a customers swipes their card in the machine. It offers information on products, stores the user's previous shopping history, and even recommends items to buy based on the user's shopping profile.

Cisco showcased the IP phones (voice over Internet protocol) with desktop applications that address the needs of both store employees and shoppers while cutting the cost.

According to company officials, employees can use the phones to clock in and out of work, and maintain their own staff profiles. Store customers can use the phone to get product information as well as order items not currently available in-store.

"The store of the future will be more of a 'do-it-itself' event with not much human interaction," said Richard Hastings, retail economist with Variant Research. "These new systems will eventually be able to recognize your tastes and preferences and what you like to buy better than you yourself know."  Top of page


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