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The New Power Tool

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Sharmeen Sarkar is one of Circuit City’s many ‘heroes’ who rely on Web-based tablet PCs for updated information.

In its quest to take multichannel retailing to new levels, Circuit City Stores envisioned creating a “boundless selling environment.” At the heart of this project was an army of associates who could deliver infinite knowledge, regardless of merchandise category or department—similar to the service shoppers receive online. The chain quickly realized that isolated customer-service departments and employees that possessed specialized technical knowledge would not support its endeavors.

By developing an interactive, wireless tablet PC-based selling tool, Circuit City is not only assisting store-level employees to become more knowledgeable and deliver more customer service, it is also helping the chain differentiate itself among competitors.

The project is a lofty one when considering the consumer-electronics retailer’s humble beginnings. In 1949, Samuel Wurtzel opened Ward’s—Richmond, Va.’s first retail television store. Fast-forward more than 50 years, and Wurtzel’s brand has evolved into the company currently known as Circuit City.

The chain operates more than 680 superstores and nine outlet stores in the United States. The company’s international segment operates 775 stores throughout Canada. Regardless of the locale, the chain’s goal is to provide technologies and solutions that make its customers’ lives easier and more enjoyable.

That may sound easy enough, but it is an ongoing challenge, as consumer-electronics life cycles get seemingly shorter. “We ask our associates to learn a lot so they can assist our shoppers, but this takes a toll on them,” Matt M. Johnson, manager, Circuit City’s concept development/store experience, told Retail Technology Quarterly. “Between 50% and 60% of our shoppers research merchandise online, but they still expect our associates to be experts on these products and help them make an educated buying decision.”

A high industry turnover rate doesn’t make this any easier on Circuit City. “These combined factors made it difficult for us to educate employees and engage customers,” said Dave Romero, the chain’s senior manager, new concepts.

Circuit City’s first attempt to keep employees (or “partners” as they are referred to internally) in-the-know, was to provide tear pads at customer-service stations. Following a “frequently asked questions” format, these paper-based materials did help to increase sales.

“However, our partners had a hard time embracing the materials and using them consistently,” he recalled. “The materials also often failed to engage the consumer.”

The Age of Evolution That’s when the chain developed a PC-based tablet. The unit, which debuted almost three years ago, resembled “an electronic Etch-A-Sketch,” noted Romero.

“We made that paper information available on the tablet,” he said. “Equipped with a stylus to help partners navigate merchandise information, the unit fostered conversation with consumers. It also gave our partners more credibility.”

The tablet was live for six months in 11 Boston-based stores and a couple of Florida locations when Circuit City began expanding the solution’s functionality. The chain wanted a tool that could achieve three goals: to uphold its boundless selling, guide shoppers to make the best buying decision, and feature top-notch training.

The second-generation tablet was based on InfoPath software from Microsoft, Redmond, Wash. In essence, the chain repurposed existing information into XML-based templates that users accessed via drop-down menus.

The biggest transition came when Circuit City connected the tablets to Web-based information. Linked to proprietary software, the tablets wirelessly communicated with Circuit City’s network.

“Associates carried the tablets as they walked throughout the store. It enabled them to answer questions, provide digital-merchandise demonstrations and service shoppers beyond the sales counter,” explained Johnson.

“The units definitely helped us improve our guest service, and helped our partners perform better from a selling standpoint,” said Brian Leach, Circuit City’s VP, new concepts.

The biggest strides came when the chain wanted to augment the multichannel experience through the units. “We have tied our Web presence very closely with our business units and merchandising departments,” Romero said.

“We wanted the next tablet generation to give partners visibility into offers, promotions, and merchandise available enterprisewide,” he said. “Our past versions focused on the merchandise. The newest version had to focus on providing solutions.”

Circuit City tapped Microsoft’s expertise once again, and the team introduced EDGE in April. The unit, which stands for “Enhanced Digital Guide Experience,” is a tablet PC provided by Fujitsu. A custom Windows-based application gives partners access to the chain’s available merchandise, product recommendations, Flash-based demos, product-usage questions and competitive pricing. It also schedules appointments for firedog, Circuit City’s tech-support service.

EDGE is programmed to extract product information, inventory data at store- and e-commerce-level, in-store promotions, third-party reviews, and other merchandise and corporate information from the Web and multiple Circuit City back-end business systems. Partners can perform what-if queries through the unit’s decision-support intelligence application, and answers are delivered via the tablet’s user interface. EDGE is supported by Microsoft’s .Net framework, which is a Web-enabled interface that allows the units to be Web browser-oriented.

While EDGE sports many new applications, it was important—and cost-effective—for Circuit City to leverage as much existing infrastructure as possible. “We didn’t want to spend a ton of money on its development,” said Leech said.

That’s why EDGE accesses existing databases and servers, as well as the company’s network, provided by Cisco Systems, San Jose, Calif.

 

The New Training Paradigm Besides supporting store-selling operations, the units are impacting Circuit City’s training efforts. The chain has traded in its kiosk-based computer based training (CBT) modules for on-demand e-learning programs that are delivered directly through the mobile computers.

Flash technology is supporting the unit’s training functionality, which is comprised of simulation-based training that resembles the video games. While Circuit City partners range in age, the intuitive interface and complementing training applications are second nature for Generation Y associates who have grown up with Web applications.

“This promotes ongoing learning,” explained Romero. “Delivering training on demand vs. pushing it through the unit has changed the paradigm.”

To date, there are approximately 15 units being used in Circuit City’s 11 Boston-based stores and in all 50 of the chain’s new The City format stores. The City stores, which launched in June 2007, feature an average of 20,000-sq.-ft. of selling space, and deliver a more personalized shopping experience through interactive sections where shoppers can test electronics and services.

The chain would not disclose whether the units were actually cutting training time. It did report that the new approach to training is impacting Circuit City’s corporate culture.

“The units have helped us create a fun, friendly and happy environment, and this is filtering throughout the company and our internal culture,” he said.

And training efforts can only improve from here. “We are exploring how to add collaborative learning into the mix,” Romero reported. “We could do this by programming the mobile devices to access electronic forums or Wikis,” Web-based software that allows users to create and comment on content.

“In The City, our partners are heroes. They are there to connect with shoppers and help them solve problems,” he said. “We expect EDGE to help them facilitate this.”

© 2014