Magazine Article | November 1, 2004

When Will Portable Printing Applications Grow?

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Barriers to the adoption of portable POS are stiff-arming front end wireless printing applications. Will customer-facing portable printing ever take off?

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, November 2004

Think of printing applications in your stores and what pops into your mind first? Most likely, receipt printers of the type that sit at your POS stations and hum along as they record transactions. These cornerstones of the POS are typically churned out from the likes of Epson, Ithaca, Star, and TPG, and they're more often than not anchored between your POS monitors and pole displays. You'll often see them surrounded by a thick layer of dust, a telltale sign that they're rarely touched save for a paper roll or ink cartridge change.

But keep pondering the topic and your mind moves past the cash wraps at the front of your stores and into your aisles, back rooms, DCs, and warehouses. Here, it's handheld devices with integrated portable printers that are often the right tool for jobs like inventory receiving, cycle counting, and shelf-edge labeling. Companies like Intermec, Symbol, and Zebra come to mind.

Traditionally there wasn't much, if any, competition between these two camps of printer manufacturers who supply solutions for these separate sets of retail needs. Then the hype about portable POS began, and both retailers and vendors began to wonder, among other things, what will a portable receipt printer look like? Who will make it? How will it work wirelessly? With these questions came semblances of answers from both mobile device manufacturers and traditional POS receipt printer makers. Portable POS is where the worlds of these two distinctly different, yet strikingly similar, breeds of companies meet. While the market for wireless portable POS devices has yet to cause a clash between portable and stationary printing vendors, they're loading up their arsenals and tuning up their sales pitches in anticipation of growing demand.

Potential Pitfalls Of Portable POS
Bob Danahy, Zebra Technologies' (Vernon Hill, IL) director of global mobile and wireless technology, says more than half of the products his company is shipping are wireless enabled, and a nearly equal percentage of recipients are actually using the wireless functionality. "The predominant wireless technology we sell is 802.11b, and a good many of our customers are requiring custom network settings," he says. "There are any number of mistakes that can be made, such as incorrectly setting the IP addresses of devices, deploying insufficient security protocols, improperly locating access points, and failing to consider interference from other devices, structures, and network frequencies, that can break an installation." Danahy explains that even the slightest missteps can impact the range in which devices can operate, impairing the ability for multiple devices to communicate.

Danahy says that 802.11b offers an open network that facilitates front end and forward-looking types of solutions like queue busting and portable POS. Still, he and others poised to profit from the adoption of wireless POS acknowledge that there are hills to climb.

What Are The Barriers To Portable POS?
"There has been a lot of talk about portable POS, but we're not selling any." So the matter is summed up by Doug Hall, director of printer marketing for handheld computing device manufacturer Intermec Technologies (Everett, WA). He quickly qualifies his statement though. "Despite its current lack of traction, we're preparing the product line for all eventualities." Intermec's lack of portable POS device sales isn't for lack of trying, and judging by trade show and trade publication hype, it's not for lack of industry interest, either. What's lacking is retail priority. Sophisticated retailers can see the benefits of portable POS, but the benefits don't yet outweigh the benefits of other, more mission-critical investments, particularly those that focus on cost management. The hospitality industry is supposed to be the exception - it's alleged that tableside checkout in the hospitality industry is leading the adoption of portable POS. But, when was the last time you were treated to tableside checkout? Considering that I eat out quite often (much to the chagrin of my wallet and my waistline) and have yet to see it, hospitality might be considered an early, but not frequent, adopter of the technology. But both Hall and Mark Waldin, director of retail industry marketing for Intermec, agree that customer-facing portable printing applications are poised for growth as barriers are eliminated.

"The explosion of self-checkout in various retail markets is indicative of the fact that customers are open to new checkout experiences and love being in control, even if it takes more time for them to check out," says Waldin. "The next logical extension of this is to take checkout to the aisles of the store, especially in stores that are not lane-based and that have sales associates," he says. The wireless technology is there and proven in the form of 802.11 and Bluetooth, and wireless-enabled hardware is also proven and ready.

Form factor problems and business process issues are what remain to be solved. Retailers pondering portable POS must address many questions, including: Is there a clear business case for wireless, portable checkout, and does it fit in with the image I want to project? Do I have enough qualified sales associates in my stores to make it work? Are most of the transactions I process plastic or cash, and how will that affect my portable POS? Is the number of goods in my average transaction going to be a problem?

Taking the POS to the aisles of your store requires a solution that allows sales associates to juggle customer interaction, products, cash, credit and debit cards, bags, and the hardware associated with these. Hall notes that some states mandate that retailers supply a separate device to allow the consumer to input his or her PIN number. In other states, customer-facing price displays are required to display the transaction in real time as it's occurring. "How practical is it to expect your sales associate to look like GI Joe, working the aisles while wearing a tool belt laden with holsters for gadgets and accessories?" Hall asks. "Portable POS has been a good thing, particularly where large and big-ticket items are sold, but there are processes that need to be reengineered before it makes sense in general retail," he says. Some retailers have found success with trolleys or carts outfitted with portable POS devices, but these can clutter the aisles. Waldin says Intermec has also developed a device that acts as a portable base station that wireless peripheral components snap in and out of. In the end, the best form factor will be the one that best fits the individual store environment. This case-by-case nature of portable POS needs will create clear differentiation among the vendors offering solutions.

Do You Really Need Portable POS?
The need for portable POS is one current bone of contention between traditional POS receipt printer manufacturers and wireless handheld device vendors. While most of the latter are approaching the market for portable POS products cautiously, some of the former are flat-out questioning its necessity. Jim Stetson, executive VP of sales with TransAct Technologies Corp. (Wallingford, CT), is one such detractor. "We've seen a fair amount of casual interest in the idea of portability, but it's not gaining acceptance as fast as we had expected," he says. In fact, he might go so far as to steer retailers who are interested in portable printing away from losing the wires altogether. "If you want to implement portable technology for line busting because your lines are too long, wouldn't it be more economical to purchase a few new thermal printers that print twice as fast as those you're using now?" he asks. That's not to say that TransAct is turning its back on wireless altogether. The company offers a wireless printer, albeit one that still needs to be tethered for power, and Stetson is anticipating increased demand for portable technology in the future. "Five years ago, no one was using USB [universal serial bus] connectivity for POS peripherals. Now you see lots of USB connectivity out there. The same goes for Ethernet connectivity, which has become a reality," he says. In these cases, peripheral networking technologies were put to good use as they became proven and gained acceptance. The same phenomenon can't be ruled out for wireless. The early buzz gained the notion of portable POS printing quite a bit of attention, but the traction it hasn't gained might not be as big a story as the demand it has the potential to generate.

Christoph Naasz, VP of sales and marketing at Star Micronics (Edison, NJ), sees current demand for mobile printing solutions and anticipates the demand for portable POS printing solutions will come somewhere down the road. "A year ago, people were calling us all the time for a portable solution. They don't call us anymore. At that time, the buzz outweighed the real need," he says. As the technologies that drive portable printing in retail become more common, will you be more likely to adopt solutions? Naasz thinks so. "People are still trying to figure out what Bluetooth is. They've heard about Wi-Fi, most often from a consumer's perspective, as an option for their home computer. They haven't thought about its applicability to POS yet, but it will happen slowly, similar to the way USB took hold. We're just now seeing the adoption of USB-enabled applications," he concludes.

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