Mobile POS Momentum in Retail

The idea of mobile POS isn't new.  Back at 360Commerce, we created a web-based mobile POS we called "Unleashed."  At the time, most mobile devices didn't have enough power to render the pages quickly, so it never really took off.  Home Depot deployed it on tablets attached to carts, but most retailers limited mobile devices to inventory processes.  Even Apple's first version of the mobile POS, deployed on Symbol devices running Windows CE, didn't garner much attention.  It wasn't until Infinite Peripherals, working with Apple, created the iPod sled that suddenly the concept caught fire.

I suppose there are a couple reasons mobile POS is now trending up.  First, nowadays many retailers have upgraded their in-store networks to support WiFi.  Retailers need a fast, reliable in-store network for mobile POS to work well.  Second, the cost of the iPod is significantly lower than traditional (hardened) handhelds.  They are cheap enough that when one breaks, nobody has to be fired.  Third, customers carrying smartphones increased the their expectations for mobile checkout.

Below I created a table of tier-1 deployments of mobile POS. The dates are approximate, based on news coverage I found on the Web.  I'm sure I missed some, but if I couldn't find a reliable date, then I skipped it.  I used the earliest date I could find.

 Date  Retailer  Notes
 11/2009  Apple  iPod
 12/2009  Home Depot  Motorola
 11/2010  Disney  iPod
 12/2010  Gap/Old Navy
 01/2011  Guess  iPod
 03/2011  Urban Outfitters
 06/2011  Nordstrom  iPod
 08/2011  Lowes  iPod

Now there are several software vendors writing mobile versions of the POS, usually on the iPod and iPad.  And the solutions range from tier-1 to Mom-and-Pop stores.  One has to wonder if Google, who purchased Motorola, will find a way to get in on the hardware business.  Or whether Microsoft will manage to get its operating system into mobile POS devices.  It just seems like the iPod has all the momentum right now.


Actually, there were several deployments of mobile POS that considerably predate Apple's.

NSB Retail (now a division of BT Expedite) had a product in 2003, even including EMV Chip and Pin readers. I seem to recall that the hardware was Symbol based (Symbol became part of Moto).

The business concept was to allow "linebusting/queuebusting" rather than be a complete POS replacement (the terminal could not handle cash, which in some retailers is an important must-have).

WH Smith (newagent/bookstores) had the system on trial, as did a few others, and other retailers looked at the concept.

It never took off because
a) No-one believed that almost all transactions would be card based (lack of cash handling is an issue), so mobile POS could not be the majority or only POS equipment in store,
b) hardware cost (incl. breakages), and
c) The concept of linebusting has a social problem: How do you keep the person in front of the person you just linebusted happy if the line is still long? And what if part of the line is cash and can't be busted?

The latter social problem is less of an issue if you are opening a fixed till, because the people in the line decide who will peel off into the new line. A linebuster is selecting people in the line to handle, which means that any "unfairness" will feel like the retailer's fault.

Mobile POS is great if everyone staff member in the store can be an effective saleperson (skills and time), and there is a high value add to the sales process (such as building a solution for the customer).

If some store staff are dedicated to processes other than sales (stocking, cleaning, technical services, counter service i. e. deli counter in a supermarket) then Mobile POS probably is less useful since the store may not have enough staff to ring up anyway even if they had a mobile POS device--what is needed there is not Mobile POS so much as POS which is mobile (standard POS on a plug in cart with Wifi for peak trading with additional staff, including cash drawer), and easy to use self service POS. Or to put it another way, you have to have enough hours in the store to stock the shelves so that customers can select products before you can ring up anyway!

Finally, the partner to mobile POS is mobile credit (loan) applications, but this isn't much of a challenge for web-enabled, wifi connected tablets (although a camera is helpful to get pictures of documents used to prove identification).

Posted by guest on September 13, 2011 at 11:38 AM PDT #

Good points, Miles. I always appreciate your comments. I added the clarification that the list is post Apple EasyPay.

Posted by David on September 13, 2011 at 12:46 PM PDT #

Great points! I want to reiterate the importance of processing speed, the "sled" and applications development... And of course, price. Apple's EasyPay certainly proved that this was all possible first and unfortunately development on other platforms of both a standard payments "sled" device and the applications have not come fast enough, yet. I say yet because the list of announcements is still short, considering the number of retailers interested in in store mobility. I expect we will see more Android and Windows devices deployed in the next couple of years. Because of the plethora of Android and Windows based devices, developing a standard sled is difficult unless the mobile devices' form factor is more predictable and the price is competitive with the iPod Touch. Those companies that can conquer these challenges will change the market.

Posted by Leslie Hand on September 15, 2011 at 01:55 PM PDT #

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