Byline: Denise Power

CHICAGO — There’s new technology headed into stores, but retailers have little say about it. They don’t have to worry about issues like return on investment or training, but they do have to think seriously about matters of integration.
This technology will come in the hands, purses and pockets of customers: cell phones, pagers and personal digital assistants. Forward-thinking retailers will recognize the growing momentum of this trend and respond by developing in-store systems that interface effectively with these devices, said Kevin Turner, chief information officer and senior vice president of Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark.
“‘Relationship technology’ is coming to a store near you,” he told retailers during a keynote address here at the Retail Systems 2000 conference and exposition last week. “A big convergence is happening. It’s powerful and will reshape all that we are trying to do.”
Turner said consumers have incorporated new technologies into their everyday lives at breakneck speed. At the same time, new innovations in wireless technology and broadband Internet access promise to put yet more power in their hands.
“This convergence says that you have to be ready — within your stores — to adapt to this technology,” he said. The emergence of personal computing capacity will directly affect the shopping experience and support and enhance the key elements of relationships, whether they involve consumer-to-retailer or consumer-to supplier engagements.
Turner cited some examples of such relationship technology, including a car stereo that doubles as a personal computer, equipped with e-mail and voice-recognition technology. Other such technologies being developed include a microwave oven that also communicates e-mail messages — such as “clean your room” to kids coming home from school — and a refrigerator with Internet access for home shopping built into a panel on the door.
“What does that mean to the retailer? It means that inside your store, people will use their cell phones, their pagers, e-mail access, TV remote controls and scanners. It will blur the line between online and in-store.
“This is next-millennium computing. Relationship technology will drive the convergence between the Web and the store,” he continued.
Looking a decade into the future, Turner said customers will walk store aisles and use their own technology to scan items to obtain a price, perhaps do some comparative shopping via the Internet and expect to be able to check warranty and product specifications on merchandise.
“This will totally revolutionize sales floor help because it will put power in the hands of consumers,” he added. “This is the technology you have to get close to. The more knowledge we push out to consumers, the more powerful they are to make better decisions.”
Among the steps Wal-Mart is taking toward this end is the introduction of wireless kiosks in stores and “making sure we can adapt them so they can do some of these things I am talking about.” Turner said it’s critical the systems have the same look, feel and interface that consumers are already familiar with, and that the in-store equipment can interact with their own devices. They should be able to print a shopping list, for example, from a customer’s palm computer.
“These are all very important strategic initiatives we have underway to move into this relationship technology,” he added.
The Retail Systems 2000 conference and exhibition was sponsored by Retail Systems Alert Group, Newton Upper Falls, Mass. The show was held in conjunction with the Voluntary Interindustry Commerce Standards (VICS) association’s annual supply chain conference.