Sears revamps in-store wireless LANs

Given the benefits Sears has already reaped from the proprietary wireless LANs it's used in its stores since the mid-1990s, the retailer figures it's in for an even bigger payoff from the new standards-based LANs it will finish rolling out next month.

The company is wrapping up deployment of 15,000 handheld computers on IEEE 802.11b-based wireless LANs in 900 stores. Sears plans to use the devices for an array of new applications for shoppers, on top of the existing crop of inventory and pricing applications now used by employees.

The sleek, new Palm OS-based computers, built by Symbol Technologies, replace bulkier batch-oriented devices, worn in holsters, that reflected the proprietary nature of wireless networks before the advent of 802.11 wireless standards in the past few years. The new 2.4-GHz frequency-hopping radio-based LANs run at 1M or 2M bit/sec, not much faster than the outgoing wireless LANs.

But by adding easily programmable handhelds that use an operating system for which more than 7,000 applications are available, Sears plans to roll out a new generation of easy-to-use programs to streamline store operations and improve customer service, says Michael LeRoy, Sears' director of retail systems.

The original proprietary wireless LANs and handhelds already let Sears employees check prices and inventory without leaving the sales floor and provide limited, on-the-spot printouts of data. The systems improved pricing accuracy, reduced the time shelves were empty, shortened the time customers waited for merchandise pickup and sped merchandise movement from backroom to sales floor.

The new LANs and handhelds will let Sears streamline these processes further, improving the accuracy of bar code scanning and laying the foundation for applications intended to be used by customers.

For store employees, the new devices, dubbed "gizmos," are lighter, easier and just more fun to use than the old ones.

Users now work with a Web browser on the devices, instead of an alpha-numeric interface, for accessing applications on an in-store server.

The Symbol handhelds also can work with a broader range of peripherals than the older devices, and these peripherals can be attached to a wireless LAN via radio interface cards. Sears is scattering Zebra Encore 3 network printers, fitted with Symbol wireless cards, around each store to handle printing a range of stock lists, pricing tickets and the like.

"One of my managers said, 'Footsteps are evil,'" LeRoy says. "When you don't have to walk back to a PC to get your information, that's so important."

When Sears first deployed in-store wireless LANs, the company required its vendor to make it possible to upgrade to 802.11b by changing the firmware in the radio access points and rolling out new handhelds. Sears was eager to embrace an IEEE standard for wireless so it could keep adding new equipment to its wireless networks, just as companies do on standard wired Ethernet LANs.

The next step was deploying an updated handheld with a new user interface.

"Ergonomics and total cost of ownership were the two key reasons for choosing a Palm OS-based device," LeRoy says.

Symbol's Palm OS browser meant that applications could be moved from the device -- where they resided in the past -- too centrally managed servers.

Symbol paid close attention in designing the SPT 1740 devices. Engineers incorporated a powerful bar code scanner, and configured the size and location of additional buttons for easy use. The handhelds are 1-inch high, 3 5/8 inches wide, 7 inches long and weigh 11.8 ounces, including battery and wireless card.

The new Sears devices also contain an SNMP agent that makes them visible to the firm's Hewlett-Packard OpenView net management software. The older devices could not be managed this way.

Sears says its employees are embracing the new devices.

"We made the mistake of passing the new gizmos out during our first training session, before we started talking about them," recalls Randy Blackburn, manager of a Las Vegas Sears store that's one of about a half dozen stores designated as "learning centers" for new systems. "There was instant chaos: It's like playing [instead of computing]. We almost had to take the gizmos back to get on with the training."

Not that much training was needed. LeRoy soon scrapped the 90-minute classroom-like sessions and created a set of 10-minute training films, one for each application. "Visual devices need visual training," he says.

The new systems translate into more face-to-face time with customers.

"We'll put on this device whatever applications our customers demand," he says.

This story, "Sears revamps in-store wireless LANs " was originally published by Network World.

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