Look around. Chances are you see your mobile device sitting on the desk, you’re reading this on a mobile device, or you see someone else using a mobile device in your vicinity. In short, mobile is everywhere. And this trend is one reason why Microsoft is at the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Big Show this week in NYC at booth #2703.

New mobile devices are proliferating in stores, from phones to customized tablets. And mobile devices are increasingly being used by retailers and brands to allow for “assisted selling” and mobile point-of-sale solutions that help make employee work easier and more portable while delighting customers.

At this year’s NRF show Microsoft is featuring Windows touch-first experiences for assisted sales capabilities. Using a tablet to answer a shopper question such as “I bought a defective product, can I return it without a receipt?” is a key benefit of being able to access existing systems. We are also showing the latest in employee enablement including a modern app that intuitively transitions from a shopper’s wish-list to an inventory management system to quickly answer shopper inquiries. Delivering this entire experience on the sales floor is the goal of Windows tablets in retail.

Indeed, smart retailers are able to bring together the back-office, the storefront and the individual consumer experience in new ways. Who is doing this well? Today we are announcing a few examples of new client solutions and some existing clients who are expanding their use of Microsoft mobile technology to better serve their customers:

  • Connected Fitting Room: Microsoft, Accenture and Avanade developed a Connected Fitting Room that we’re showing for the first time at NRF. When a customer enters a connected fitting room carrying RFID-tagged garments, the solution automatically recognizes the items and displays them graphically on a Windows Embedded 8 powered touchscreen. From there, the user can select a different size, style, or color as well as browse and even request related recommendations, all of which will be sent to a store associate’s smartphone on the shop floor for immediate fulfillment. The solution also collects anonymous data from all visits in a Microsoft SQL Server database. Through a combination of Accenture analytics and Microsoft business intelligence tools, this data is transformed into insights, such as average time customers spend in the fitting room, how many items are brought in, or store associate response times. The store manager accesses and takes action on the information through a solution dashboard on a tablet or laptop.  The magic of this Intelligent System combines digital, cloud, and analytics to transform the retail fitting room experience.  And clients who utilize this solution can harness that insight to make better merchandising decisions.  After all, everything brought into a fitting room was a “like”.  Learning how, why, and when clients make a decision to purchase or not is invaluable
  • MQ Retail AB: As one of the top fashion retailers in Scandinavia, MQ Retail AB wanted to find a way to deliver a better retail experience to their brick and mortar customers. During a recent pilot, they selected deployment of   Microsoft Surface Pro  devices in store as the best way to do this.  With the installation of these devices, they brought customers the ability to go into a store, try on an item, and then order it in a different color or size for next day delivery.  Early indications from pilot stores are that the presence of this experience positively impact sales per store and offer overall supply chain and inventory management benefits.
  • Avis: With its strategic focus on mobility, Avis believes their retail store staff needs to be as mobile and connected as their customers.  As an early pioneer in deployment of wireless mobile devices for use by retail employees, Avis has continued to enhance its utilization of mobile devices to help make the customer experience smoother from end-to-end, and enhance the productivity and efficiency of retail employees. They have developed a modern Windows ‘Select & Go’ app to improve customers’ check out experience. Instead of standing at the counter, customers can be helped by associates wherever they are, including a walk out to the Avis car rental lot where customers can select a car and choose to upgrade on the spot instead of going back inside. For a busy traveler, this promises to offer a much improved and more efficient travel experience. Avis is also using the mobile device and app to check people back in and offer a mobile point-of-sale for quicker, more convenient service.
  • Rooms to Go sales associates use a line-of-business Windows 8 app called MiRTG on tablets to improve customer service on their showroom floor through mobility. With the touch-enabled app running on Dell Latitude 10 tablets, sales associates are able to walk around with customers to quickly look up information, answer questions, and create a sale – right from their fingertips. Rooms To Go expects their more engaging and efficient customer service to translate into increased sales.
  • Sheraton Hotels & Resorts is a great example of a company that is bringing together secure and easy-to-manage computing while enhancing guests’ digital experience in a highly social environment. They’ve achieved this with Windows 8 Enterprise running on Lenovo ThinkCentre All-In-One PCs to power their popular Link@Sheraton kiosks. The kiosks are touch-enabled and available in Sheraton lobbies for guests to use, providing access to the Internet and custom Sheraton content. With Windows 8, Sheraton can curate relevant, timely content for guests to enjoy the same fun, interactive experience on a PC or a mobile device in different venues around the hotel. The kiosks have been so successful that Sheraton is deploying Lenovo ThinkPad 2 tablets in other areas of their hotels for an even more enhanced digital experience.
  • Ushuaia Ibiza Beach Hotel: A luxury hotel on the island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean Sea, Ushuaïa Ibiza Beach Hotel has equipped its lobby and hotel rooms with Xbox 360 with Kinect entertainment devices to enable guests to stream their favorite music, watch thousands of HD movies, and play the latest video games—all while enjoying a drink or taking in the hotel’s party atmosphere. Hotel guests can also use the Xbox 360 with Kinect to chat with guests in other rooms. The hotel has also outfitted selected suites with Microsoft Surface tablets complete with Windows 8 and Office 365. The tablets make it easy for customers to catch up on the latest news and events, while offering a second device from which to stream music and watch videos.

In addition to retailers doing compelling things to create consistent customer experiences, partners are also building smart retail solutions, such as:

  • MICROS is a world leader in hospitality and retail technology solutions and is working with Microsoft, Dell, and Intel to improve experiences for its customers around the world.  MICROS is developing  new, highly customizable POS solutions built on Windows Embedded 8.1 Industry Pro. MICROS’ Simphony will give businesses a beautiful, modern experience that is consistent across devices. It’s also working to make its entire software suite available on Windows 8, which includes Windows Embedded 8. This takes POS systems to the next level.
  • Razorfish Emerging ExperiencesThe Razorfish Emerging Experiences team has torn down the walls of retail to deliver a highly interactive and uniquely portable shopping experience that creates big moments with a smaller, more nimble footprint. Their 5D Retail Platform seamlessly connects a variety of devices to attract customers, drive product engagement and arm store associates with more contextualized tools. The end result is a fun and personal experience—the way shopping should be.
  • AnywhereCommerce: The global payments technology provider announced today it has joined our Designed for Surface third party development program. Through the new joint relationship between Surface and AnywhereCommerce, retailers can take advantage of a suite of secure and flexible mobile point of sale (mPOS) solutions that are integrated into a single Surface solution for their stores.
  • MagTek:  MagTek designs builds and sells systems used worldwide by financial institutions, retailers, hotels, law enforcement agencies and other organizations to provide secure and efficient electronic payment and identification transactions. These include secure card readers, check scanners, payment terminals and distributed credential issuing systems.  Joining the Designed for Surface program today, MagTek will work with us to develop mobile readers for EMV and magstripe cards that support the Surface tablet. MagTek’s uDynamo, BulleT, and DynaPro Mini readers (mobile) and the DynaPro and Dynamag readers (countertop) will ultimately become a part of this Surface retail solution. 

All of these great mobile examples show how mobility is truly transforming the retail experience. However, sometimes mobile solutions simply accelerate a bad business process.  This has proven a painful lesson for some.  It’s also important for retailers to avoid creating new business issues when deploying mobile devices in their environments. This has proved to be a real challenge for many retailers, as they have had to:

  • Purchase additional IT tools to manage the devices,
  • Re-build existing line-of-business (LOB) applications for the new operating systems, and
  • Deal with the limited functionality of consumer devices in an enterprise environment.

Thus, while mobility in retail is here to stay, there is increasing focus on manageability, security, enterprise-ready solutions, and long term costs.   According to a survey conducted for Microsoft by Forrester Research, organizations utilizing Windows 8 tablets could gain improved sales associate effectiveness and accuracy, and increased customer satisfaction. Further, businesses could lower management, security and total purchase costs, when compared to utilizing non-Windows tablets.

At the end of the day, mobility in retail is creating new opportunities to innovate.  By connecting and unifying the customer experience across devices, everyone wins.