How the container store uses wearable tech to think outside the box

There are many reasons why The Container Store, a Coppell, Texas-based retailer of storage systems and accessories, has made Fortune Magazine's list of "100 Best Companies to Work For" the past 15 years.

Among those reasons: The company says its full-time staffers receive 263 hours of training during their first year, compared to the 7-hour retail industry average, and its salespeople reportedly make 50 to 100% more than the industry average.

The Container Store also looks for ways to empower, and inspire, its retail staff with technology, and it is currently testing some unique new wearable tech designed to improve communication within its stores.

Like a lot of retail companies, The Container Store uses walkie-talkies, but about nine months ago, the company took its first steps away from those two-way radios and started piloting the Theatro Wearable Computer in its Austin, Texas, store. This small gadget enables hands-free voice communication over Wi-Fi networks, among other things.

While The Container Store is only using the Theatro Wearable Computer in one store, the gadgets have already revolutionized the way its salespeople communicate. John Thrailkill, The Container Store VP of store systems and business development, says the company has been so pleased with the results that it plans to roll out Theatro Wearable Computers across its entire lineup of stores in the coming years. Thrailkill also thinks The Container Store is just starting to realize the true potential of the device.

Theatro Wearable Computer Look and Feel

The

Theatro Wearable Computer
is roughly the size of a matchbox, but a bit thicker, and clips to a pocket, lapel or lanyard. It's made of durable plastic and weighs 1.25 ounces. It has a rechargeable (though not removable) battery that gets about nine hours of life, and it sits in an "egg-crate-like" charging tray when not in use.

The device uses a standard headphone jack to connect an earpiece or earbuds, for audio, so it's compatible with most headsets. The current Theatro Wearable does not support Bluetooth, however. The components would have added significant costs and complexity, because Bluetooth headsets need to be paired, connected and constantly charged, according to Chris Todd, Theatro CEO.

The Theatro Wearable Computer has a large rubber button on its face, which is used to initiate voice commands, along with three buttons on its side: Two for volume up and down, and another that Todd calls the "disturb everybody button" because it bypasses the voice commands and lets you speak to everyone in the store, not unlike a walkie talkie. That third button is customizable, but its default function is a broadcast feature. The device also has a LED that illuminates when the battery is low.

How the Theatro Wearable Works

Theatro's wearable connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi, then sends data packets through Theatro's cloud and re-routes them to the appropriate parties, whether they're in the same location as the sender or in another store across the country.

The system uses asynchronous (half duplex) communication and leverages compression algorithms to support voice over Wi-Fi, according to Theatro's Todd. Theatro also buffers all broadcasts between users to ensure they do not miss any communication due to crosstalk or simultaneous broadcasts -- so a solid Wi-Fi network is a key component.

A connection to the Internet is required at this point. If a store loses power or loses its Web connection, the system stops working. The Container Store's Thrailkill says an "offline mode," or mode that lets the wearables work on the Wi-Fi network even if the Internet connection is down, is a requirement before a large-scale rollout. Todd says the company is working on this offline mode, and it should be available in the second quarter of 2014.

The wearables can also be remotely updated, so Theatro can easily add new features and functionality.

The Container Store and the Theatro Wearable

After working closely with Theatro for more than a year to develop the product, The Container Store deployed the Theatro Wearable Computer in its Austin store to about 35 employees.

The training process for new users was painless, according to Thrailkill. "It takes about 10 minutes for us to train them on this tool, and then within that first shift they're using it very well. It's pretty intuitive and we've been very, very pleased with how quickly people take to it."

Thrailkill and his team also distributed laminated cards, listing all required voice commands, to new users for future reference.

The first time The Container Store employees use the Theatro wearable, they create a profile and then walk through a few quick exercises to ensure the gadgets can recognize their voices.

When an employee arrives at work, he picks up a wearable from the charging station, inserts the wired ear piece, presses the center button to initiate a voice command and logs on by saying, "log on John Thrailkill." As soon as a new user is connected, all other staffers on the network get a message to notify them that a person has joined. When they want to communicate with someone, they press the center button again and say another command with a worker's name. When the employees are ready to leave for the day, they drop the wearables off at the charging station. (The devices take about 45 minutes to fully charge.)

Users can receive a variety of audio messages. For example, if they report to work midday, a condensed, recorded version of the team's early-morning "huddle," or status meeting, is sent to their "earbox" audio inbox, and they can listen as they prepare for work. Or they may get an audio alert when the Theatro wearable's battery is low.

The Theatro wearable uses Wi-Fi triangulation to locate users in range of the network. One staffer could ask the device, "Where is Al?" and the system would find that user and respond, "Al is in kitchen."

The gadgets are shared; they're not exclusive to individuals. Right now, there's no security or authentication measures, either. "We don't think there's a loss prevention issue at this point, because you're not able to do anything else with the system with that information," Thrailkill says.

Why Wearables at The Container Store?

Those ancient walkie-talkies may not be pretty, but they work. So why is The Container Store embracing the Theatro Wearable Computer?

Thrailkill says the wearable does everything a walkie-talkie can and more. It also makes communication between staffers much more efficient and reduces unnecessary noise and distractions.

The Container Store worked with Theatro to measure walkie-talkie use in the Austin store and compare it to how staffers used the wearable. They found that the total number of messages each wearable user hears in a given day is about 60% less than before launching the Theatro system. But the overall number of messages going across the store network is about 30% higher, according to Thrailkill.

"We see more communication, but less of it going to everybody," Thrailkill says. "This means less fatigue, less taking the ear piece out because it's bothering you while talking to a customer."

The wearable devices are also much smaller and less obtrusive than two-way radios. Plus, they're voice controlled, so they require less physical interaction. (Voice commands are also customizable. Theatro programs custom commands today, but in the future users may be able to create and change their own commands.)

Another feature that sets the Theatro wearable apart from walkie-talkies is the ability to create customizable groups and communicate only with specific people. For example, Thrailkill says, on a given day you can create a group of register salespeople and subscribe people to that group instantly. "While that group is active, we can send messages just to that group."

The Container Store also envisions a time when they will be able to create company-wide groups of subject matter experts.

"If I'm working with a customer in a store and I have a question about travel products, I could reach out to that expert group in real-time and get answers from somebody across the company," Thrailkill says. "To me, that's the real power of this being networked; it allows you to leverage the knowledge base across stores."

Thrailkill says he considered deploying smartphones for communication, but because of the desire to avoid a distracting display, prohibitive costs and other concerns, he ultimately decided the wearable is a better fit -- at least for now.

"We'd much rather have employees engaging with customers verbally than the two of them looking at a screen together, somebody touching the screen and punching information," Thrailkill says. "'Heads up' versus 'heads down' is how we put it."

The simplicity of the wearable is its main advantage, according to Thrailkill.

"You're not having to grab a device, swipe it, put in a passcode and open up an application to then be able to enter a command," he says. "You're just touching the device and then saying a command, and you're able to do it right away. With how much communication we do through the stores, having a dedicated device, at least for now, is by far the best way for us to work."

IT Challenges

The IT setup was relatively simple, according to Thrailkill, though it did require an external company for Wi-Fi testing and access point repositioning.

"The biggest amount of work that had to be done, and it will have to be done in every store we do this, is frankly, the tuning of the connections with the Wi-Fi network in the store," Thrailkill says. "Once it's up and running, the IT team isn't involved at all. "

During the past nine months, The Container Store hasn't had any significant hardware issues with the wearables, Thrailkill says. One or two have failed, but overall they have been "extremely stable for something that is a new product".

Theatro's Todd says the subscription price of the Theatro solution covers the cost of the wearables, as well as damage and obsolescence. Customers don't actually pay specifically for the hardware, and the devices really shouldn't need any sort of IT maintenance.

"If [customers] have a problem with a device, we'll just send them a new one," Todd says.

Theatro also offers a live customer service connection, which Thrailkill says makes it very easy get support.

The user feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, Thrailkill says the staff has been very clear about never wanting to use the walkie-talkies again.

"I expected there to be a much bigger learning curve," Thrailkill says. "Having come from using walkie-talkies for years -- where you can't do them wrong, all you do is push a button and talk -- I expected it to be a month or more for [employees] to get used to commands and then connecting to a person, talking back and forth, and then remembering to end that conversation by pushing a button. It really was only a week."

The Container Store plans to bring the Theatro wearable to a second store in the Dallas area within the next few weeks. In addition to bringing in the team to make Wi-Fi adjustments, it will send at least one IT representative to help with coaching for a day or so, Thrailkill says. He doesn't expect much IT intervention beyond that. The company intends to put the Theatro wearable into the hands of roughly 2,500 employees in all of its more than 64 (and growing) stores during the next few years, adjusting the rollout and support process as necessary.

As for pricing, Thrailkill wouldn't share specifics. He says the licensing fees, which increase as you add users, aren't cheap, but he feels like his company is getting good value. "It's very reasonable, I think, for the value it's providing, and that value equation is going to go up tremendously as Theatro continues to add features."

The Future of Wearable Tech at The Container Store

Today, Thrailkill and his team is focusing on the Theatro wearable rollout at its Dallas-area store. He does not plan to deploy the wearables at any other stores this year, though the ultimate goal is to use them in all of the company's stores.

The company is also using an in-store, hosted server in its Austin location for the voice component of the system, instead of relying solely on Theatro's cloud. Theatro says this allows it to run two development tracks with separate development teams -- one focused on feature enhancements and another for creating the infrastructure to support large scalability. The Dallas-area store will operate in a similar environment.

"In the coming months, these two tracks will merge and The Container Store will be utilizing the entire solution as a cloud service," according to Todd.

Along with the Dallas store rollout, The Container Store plans to distribute wearables to its "resource center," or online help desk, which employees use for information on everything from IT questions to HR inquires, Thrailkill says. Wearable users will eventually be able to query the resources center for help with a system issue or HR question.

The ultimate goal is for the Theatro system to be deeply integrated with The Container Store's IT infrastructure and systems. That way, the CEO could, for example, record a voice message with a smartphone or other devices and then distribute it to all retail staffers via their wearables.

Theatro and The Container Store have also discussed how the devices and associated cloud system could replace the employee time-clock system and integrate with inventory data, customer information systems and much more.

Theatro's discussions with The Container Store began with personal communication. But they have evolved, Todd says. "A higher value opportunity might be the human-to-machine interface, connecting those people to the IT infrastructure versus just connecting the people to each other.

"People-to-people is important. But people-to-machine is going to be explosive."

AS

Al Sacco covers Mobile and Wireless for CIO.com. Follow Al on Twitter @ASacco. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

This story, "How the container store uses wearable tech to think outside the box" was originally published by CIO.

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