We have seen many retailers deciding to replace their internal store communications with “walkie-talkie” type systems that do not integrate with their telephone system. These retailers may be sacrificing many of the advantages a phone system delivers over such a “walkie-talkie” only system.
Up until the late 1970s, telephone systems were rather limited and only offered primitive intercom and rare to include a built-in paging system. There was no integrated intercom and paging on these systems. Most retailers used a microphone or a series of microphones at the checkouts or service desks to reach employees throughout the stores.
This all changed with the introduction of semiconductors and digital telephony in the early 1980s. Retailers no longer had to rely on using traditional telecom driven devices and so they started to purchase commercial telephone systems by companies such as Harris/Lanier (now Toshiba) with Strata, Northern Telecom with Vantage, ATT with Merlin, Nitsuko with the Meritor, and NEC with Dterm1, and ROLM with Redwood. These new systems incorporated the functionality of directly connecting the phone system to the store’s PA system or dial between phones using intercom, thus rendering the microphones obsolete. Why have 2 systems when your phone system can do the job of both, right?
For years, telephone systems have been the lifeline of a retail store. They bring business into the store by callers calling to see if the store is open, or if the store carries a certain product, or even to speak to their favorite employee. In addition, telephone systems can perform important IVR functions such as Automatic Refill for pharmacy patients, or checking the status of an order.
Fast forward to the late 1980s, a very high end discount department store from Minneapolis decides to turn their back on their telephone system to provide a “less disruptive’ environment to shoppers. Their solution was to provide “walkie-talkies” to team members instead of using the internal telephones for overhead paging or talking internally. Unknowingly, this retailer started a revolution against the in-store telephone system that slowly progressed through the 1990s to retailers like Gap and Old Navy. The retailer armed team members with a “walkie-talkie” (which was actually noisy in itself, but eliminated the need for overhead paging in the stores). These “walkie-talkies” have no interaction with the in-store telephone system, and hence we have come full circle… back to the pre-historic days of retail telecom with having two devices, when the phone system could do the job of both. This trend continued and actually accelerated in the past 10 years with many retailers.
As previously mentioned, many retailers now use these wireless non-telephone systems with headsets as a way of communicating in the stores, and ignore the advances that have become available with their phone system. This inefficient use of technology is present in many large electronic stores, hardware stores, discount stores and even department stores. These retailers have upgraded their phone systems which are now fully capable of displacing the “walkie-talkies”. They failed to achieve a higher ROI by only using it for making and receiving external calls.
There are a few retailers such as TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Mariano’s grocery here in Chicago, and Jewel-Osco, that have continued to utilize their in store telephone systems and work side by side with the headsets. These stores give some, maybe not all, employees “walkie-talkies”, but also utilize the overhead paging for more urgent announcements, such as calling for more help to the front registers to help appease customers’ fears of the long lines. Employees like butchers, pharmacists, deli clerks, and floral arrangers may find a headset to be a hindrance to their daily activities, so the headsets might be reserved more for management or the sales floor stock team to do price checks. Even though they are using two systems, they are still realizing the value of their original telephone system investment instead of turning their backs on it.
For many retailers who choose to fully leverage the technology their telephone system already offers them, they will find that their phone system already provides the capability for users to use wireless headsets. With a small radio device associates can place and answer calls. Usually this radio device (for example Spectralink and Ascom are a few manufacturers) will connect through an IP or analog trunk port onto the existing phone system. This will allow a manager walking the floor of a large retail store to carry only one device to pick up and place calls, instead of carrying multiple devices.
Some retailers have gone even farther by integrating wireless headsets into their telephone system. One large North America retailer is using wireless IP handsets that allow associates to:
Contrasting this to one of their competitors who uses three different devices in their stores; a microphone, a phone system and wireless headsets. Clearly this is inefficient and a poor use of technology.
One of the biggest reasons to keep your phone system connected to your wireless headsets is safety. By providing every employee with a radio or phone, retailers empower team members to access a phone line and call 911 representing an extra safety factor sorely needed in this day of out of control violence in some retail stores.
So before you decide to turn your back on your phone system and switch your team to headsets, take stock of what your phone system can do for you first. I think you’ll be surprised at the technologies that exist out there today, that will allow you to integrate and not disintegrate your in-store telephone system.