From the November 2003 issue of Entrepreneur

From smart scanning devices that tally purchases as customers shop to payment systems that work from a watch pad or mobile phone, some retail technology sounds more like science fiction than reality. But new developments are becoming more affordable for entrepreneurs.

  • Systems integration and customization: Entry-level software applications, like those by Celerant Technology Corp. (www.celerant.com), Kliger-Weiss Infosystems Inc. (www.kligerweiss.com), and off-the-shelf packages like Retail ICE (www.camcommerce.com) or Retail Pro (www.retailpro.com), make it possible-and affordable-to link transactions with back-office functions like inventory and marketing, says Bob Amster, principal at retail systems consulting firm Retail Technology Group in Stamford, Connecticut.

Scott Langdoc, research director at Boston-based AMR Research Inc., a technology research firm, agrees: "What used to be a stand-alone cash register can now be the window to information [about] the entire customer purchasing experience and can extend to marketing and merchandising programs for the entire store." He says capturing information about a customer's buying habits lets you customize offerings and loyalty incentives while choosing the products, assortments and store layouts that work best.

  • Radio Frequency Identification (RFID): RFID technology uses tiny electronic tags on products to communicate with strategically placed "readers" without the use of traditional scanners (no checkout lanes). RFID tags provide real-time inventory updates and house shipment information, letting you see how long a product has been in inventory. Langdoc believes that as this technology becomes widely used, smaller retailers will likely need to integrate RFID readers. Afraid of the expense? Amster believes in thinking long term: "Some retailers are small in size but have big plans. [For them], it makes sense to invest in technology early so they don't have to retrofit stores."
  • Self-service: This is one trend small retailers may not want to adopt. As megastores adopt self-service components like self-checkout and kiosks, Langdoc believes smaller retailers should seize the opportunity to differentiate themselves by focusing on personalized service.