Clovis News

Valley retailers, restaurants turning to mobile tech

Cash registers and customer service desks may soon be a thing of the past.

Retailers and restaurants are increasingly turning to mobile technology to give customers instant service. They're using all kinds of devices that are changing the way we shop and eat.

Apple stores led the way, casting aside the cash register years ago in favor of on-the-spot payments with Apple devices. Now others in Fresno are following. Servers at Carrows restaurants use Android tablets instead of order pads and Casa de Tamales uses a smartphone to take credit card payments at farmers markets.

Some retailers created their own devices, such as the mini computers that Macy's clerks at the Fashion Fair store use to see whether a shoes size is available without having to run to the back room.

Although there still are some consumer trust issues to work out, more businesses are turning to the devices because they speed up service and are convenient and portable.

Shoppers likely will see more devices at large retailers, said Mike Gatti, a senior vice president at the National Retail Federation, the Washington, D.C.-based retail trade group.

"It's a competitive thing," he said. "You really want to stay leading edge and provide this great experience for customers."

'Do you have that in a 6?'

The Fashion Fair Macy's is one laboratory for this new frontier. Macy's calls its device the Enterprise Locator System; the company is using it at 100 of its 850 stores.

Gone are the days of a clerk walking a shoe to the back room to determine whether the customer's size is in stock. Now, the clerk whips out a device about the size of a remote control. After a quick scan of a bar code on the shoe, the clerk types in the customer's size and, voilà, the machine immediately tells whether the store has the shoe in stock.

But it's not done there. The device sends a message to a worker in the back room, even telling the worker which of two doors is closest to the customer to deliver the shoes.

The minutes per sale that are saved is valuable time on busy weekends when the shoe department is besieged with customers, store manager Rick Earnest said. In the time workers once spent searching for the shoe, clerks can help up to four other people, or introduce the first customer to other options, Earnest said.

"The amount of comments about not having enough help in the shoe department was probably reduced by 80-90%," he said.

Mom-and-pop restaurants and retailers have turned to mobile devices, too.

The Casa de Tamales restaurant started taking payment via smartphone at its booth at The Vineyard Farmers Market in February.

The restaurant uses Square, an application that can be used with smartphones and iPads. It was created by the co-founder of Twitter.

Now general manager Jose Aguilar plugs a tiny square of white plastic into the headphone jack on his phone. He types in a customer's total bill and swipes the credit or debit card through the slot in the square. The customer signs on the phone's screen using a finger. A receipt is sent as a text to the customer's phone or via email.

Square charges 2.75% of every transaction -- higher than standard store-based credit card readers -- but does not have any upfront or monthly fees. The device is free.

The restaurant's owners estimate that not having a credit or debit option cost Casa de Tamales hundreds of dollars in sales. They use the device at the twice-weekly Vineyard market and the Clovis Farmers Market on Friday nights.

Now when customers come up to owner Liz Sanchez saying they've only got a couple bucks to buy a few tamales, "I say, 'I take credit cards,' and they say, 'Well, I'll take half a dozen.' "

Other businesses use this technology, too.

P DE Q, the seller of little balls of cheesy Brazilian bread, uses an iPad with a Square attachment. The Spokeasy Public House, a Tower District bar, uses Square with a phone to take card payments for beer.

Spokeasy customer Felix Muzquiz of Fresno said buying a pint of beer with the technology is "super convenient."

Muzquiz carries cash less and less these days. She first used the Square device at an heirloom vegetable expo in Northern California, where a broken ATM left her wondering how she would pay the vendors.

"It came in handy," she said. "I was able to purchase several things I otherwise wouldn't have been able to."

Other companies sell similar technology, including PayPal, which soon will debut its triangle-shaped card reader.

Such mobile payment options are far more common abroad.

That's probably because the U.S. has so many different banks and phone companies that it takes a while to create systems that communicate with all of them and set standards they all agree on, said Gatti of the NRF. Other countries may have one phone company, for example, making the process simpler, he said.

Plus, restaurants and retailers here already have invested in high-tech payment systems, meaning it will take a while for them to move to something new, he said.

Getting comfortable

The new devices may take a little getting used to for some customers. Some will be suspicious of the devices, said Bill Rice, a Fresno State marketing professor who teaches about these devices in his classes.

"There's a part of our population that is going to say, 'Are you recording me? Are you taking a picture of me?' " he said.

Others might have security concerns about swiping their credit card on someone's phone.

So far, there have been no major problems with paying that way, said California Bankers Association spokeswoman Beth Mills. Such payments have tripled since 2009, with more than $1 billion changing hands, according to the American Bankers Association.

However, any popular form of payment could be targeted by thieves, Mills said.

"Like anything, use your judgment," she said. "Make sure you are checking your account balance and your account information to make sure that nothing has happened."

If businesses can reassure their customers, the devices hold great potential for both companies and the customers they serve, Rice said.

Restaurants save money by becoming more efficient. They can cut down on the time it takes to get food to customers, prompt busy waiters to check on tables they've forgotten, even identify which waiters are slow and need more training, he said.

And customers who are ready to leave can pay with a device at the table instead of waiting for the server to return with their credit cards.

Some companies have embraced the technology age.

Home Depot, for instance, developed its own device that serves as a phone, scanner, walkie talkie and computer.

Workers can take customers' payments when they're far from the cash register, say in the lumber aisle. Wireless technology connects the device to a receipt printer clipped to the worker's belt.

It's also used to cut down on long lines at the register, with employees scanning items in a customer's cart and loading the info onto a card that is given to the cashier to speed up the transaction.

The device works as an inventory monitor, too. Employees can scan the last cabinet knob on the shelf, for example, and tell a customer that there's another dozen in stock elsewhere in the store -- or at other stores.

It's the device that gets the message when a customer orders something online for in-store pickup, alerting a worker to have the item ready.

And workers can reorder out-of-stock items through the phone, track inventory and sales, and check in to see what their duties are and who has called in sick.

"It does everything," said Ed Mora, the operations manager at the West Shaw Home Depot in Fresno. "And they're making it do more and more."