In the largest mobile POS rollout in retailing, Home Depot has deployed 30,000 transactional/communication devices in 1,970 of its stores, providing associates with handheld technology that combines inventory management and analytics functions, a phone, a store walkie-talkie, and label printing with POS. The retailer expects labor savings to cover the First Phone program's $64 million price tag within the first year of deployment, but sees the technology's true value in providing employees with the ability to bring customer service into the store's aisles on a real-time basis.
"We call it the First Phone because its core purpose is to reduce tasking time for our associates so that they can instead focus on customer service," said Home Depot chairman and CEO Frank Blake. "We see it as a foundational element of improving our service for our DIY [do-it-yourself] and professional customers, putting knowledge and communication closer at hand to our associates on the floor of the store." Blake spoke during a recent conference call discussing Home Depot's third-quarter financial results.
Following a six-month pilot program in 2009 and 2010, the full-scale deployment to Home Depot's 1,970 U.S. stores took only two and a half months, ending in October. "It was developed through close cooperation with our store operations and IT teams, perhaps the best collaboration we've ever had on a project like this," said Blake.
First Phone, which is based on the Motorola MC75 platform, operates as both an applications and a communications device. Home Depot built out a common application framework using the .NET Compact Framework, using the devices' WLAN capability to communicate with its stores' servers via Web services. This application infrastructure allows the devices to wirelessly connect via WLAN to enable label printing, allowing the retailer to build inventory applications to replace Mobile Cart, Home Depot's previous in-store inventory technology.
The next step was integration with the stores' communications infrastructure, its PBX and existing radio-based walkie-talkies. Home Depot used a third-party Voice over IP-based phone to make the handheld devices work as another phone in the building. For the walkie-talkie functionality, the retailer worked with Motorola to build a new network bridge appliance to connect VoIP devices with analog radios.
A thin client mobile POS application accessed by a mobile Web browser to interact with the stores' core POS system via Web services was the next development. The application was written to interface with an attachable magnetic stripe reader so associates can process debit and credit card transactions, and the devices interact with mobile receipt printers via Bluetooth.
Home Depot leveraged a third-party mobile middleware solution to build a business intelligence application that connects to its centralized data warehouse, providing associates with core business data at the SKU level for each store, delivered on the fly. The First Phone has allowed Home Depot to increase its footprint of inventory applications at one-fifth the cost of its previous technology, and it will also enable the retailer to decrease expenditures in existing communication devices and serve as a platform for future applications.
According to a statement from Home Depot, First Phone "allows the associate to quickly provide valuable information to a customer at the instant it's needed, making the customer experience fast, easy and enjoyable. It will truly change the way we provide customer service at our stores."
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