CUTLINE: Casher Maria Grinzator scans items at a Publix grocery store, , in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Like a growing number of retailers, Publix has a new high tech cash register system that allows shoppers to watch their items being scanned on a flat-screen monitor.

Retail tech

- Businesses catching on to value of modern software and systems

By Jaclyn Giovis

MCT

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Like it or not, more technology is coming to a store near you.

ATMs, self-checkout counters and price-check kiosks are only the most basic examples of how technology is changing the consumer's shopping experience and reshaping the retail industry.

Retailers, who have traditionally been slow adopters of technology, are beginning to understand the value of investing in new software and systems that can improve customer service, day-to-day operations and sales, experts say.

Suzanne Whalen, owner of A Style is Born, an upscale Fort Lauderdale boutique that opened about a year-and-a-half ago, is one of those retailers. She sold everything - her home, car and jewelry - to finance her store in cash, and she wanted to get her retail operation off to a running start before forking over thousands of dollars for computer systems and software.

Big mistake, she said. Only four months after her boutique opened, thieves broke into her store and stole half of the designer merchandise. She and her employee had to go through every single inventory receipt to find out what was missing.

"It would have saved us many, many months of grief and many, many months of being bogged down with paperwork if we had systems in place then," Whalen said. "I think retailers on any scale should have some systems and software that help keep things organized."

She now has basic systems to manage inventory and accounting. The cost - about $10,000 - is worth it, she said.

This kind of thinking is indicative of change. In the past, retailers large and small refused to set aside a portion of their budget to technology, claiming there was no guarantee that the long-term benefits would outweigh the hefty initial costs.

"A lot of software was sold that never got used effectively," said Bernie Brennan, chairman of Tomax Corp., a Utah company that provides real-time retail merchandising and store operations systems and software. Companies that spent a lot of money for technology - and never recouped the value behind their investment - swore off future investments for a long time, he said.

Another Wal-Mart effect

But competition and more affordable options have driven many retailers - large and small - to think twice about incorporating technology into their business models, Brennan and others say.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has been a pacesetter. As the world's largest retailer, the company has a central information system that runs its global operations and uses an expansive palate of products to help with everything from merchandise planning and employee scheduling to securing customer data at the point of sale.

Increasingly, chain stores are following Wal-Mart's lead. While some are taking smaller steps than others, consumers across the nation are bound to notice changes.

Publix Super Markets Inc., for example, has recently finished rolling out a new cash register system that allows shoppers to watch a 17-inch, flat-screen color monitor as their items and coupons are being scanned at the checkout counter, said Anne Hendricks, spokeswoman for the Lakeland, Fla.-based grocery chain.

"Our system needed an upgrade," Hendricks said, noting the company had been operating on the same checkout system since the late 1980s.

The supermarket group has also given some consideration to biometrics, a type of cutting-edge retail technology that uses a customer's fingerprint to process sales directly from personal accounts and trigger personalized discounts based on shopper product preferences.

Casual Male Retail Group is testing a new handheld device that would allow sales associates to process credit sales and e-mail the customer his receipt, so that he never has to wait in line.

The mobile computer, developed by Motorola Inc., was showcased at the National Retail Federation conference in New York last month and can store customer information, historical sales data and automate discounts and loyalty rewards on an individual basis. Each unit costs between $1,500 and $3,000.

"More and more retailers are understanding how difficult it is to find good sales associates," said Frank Riso, senior director of retail, marketing and operations for Motorola. "Giving their employees tools such as the mobile computer not only helps them do their job better but they're able to retain those salespeople longer."

Getting customers back

Research shows that customers who receive better service often decide to revisit a store time and time again.

Still, most businesses don't have deep pockets for the market's most innovative technology. And many small retailers - especially those that are just starting up and have very limited budgets - don't invest in technology immediately or still use old-fashioned methods of tracking inventory and accounting by hand.

For Whalen, who's still building up business at her small boutique, the next step is saving up for a $5,000 security and camera system that would allow her to see what's happening in her store from her personal laptop.

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