business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

When we look back on the maelstrom of 2010, what will we remember as the lasting change? We might talk about the change in shopping patterns or the growth of private label, but I’m betting it’s a piece of technology that becomes this year’s lasting legacy.

By that, I mean the iPad. And I’m not alone.

Two weeks ago, Martha White, a business writer in the Washington Post, speculated on the flash of genius that might have pushed Steve Jobs of Apple to create the iPad. White speculates that when Jobs was hospitalized for his liver transplant he was likely stunned at the poor use of technology in the medical community. He watched doctors and nurses seemingly handicapped by their assorted ways of passing messages and taking notes and realized that there must be a better way.

I find that a completely credible idea. In recent years I have twice complained to my physician about this very issue as he now seems to spend far more time looking his computer and not me, which I really don’t like. Sadly, I’m not Steve Jobs and I have no ability to solve that problem. Jobs has the ability. White reports that parts of the medical community are falling over themselves to get iPads in massive numbers.

The same thought could hold for retail. Advertising Age last week predicted this very change as applications for retail come on line. Ad Age suggests the first uses will be simple, like e-commerce and interactive catalogs; subsequent changes come in huge doses.

“In time, the iPad could be used as a virtual sales assistant, allowing sales staff in the dress department to pull up coordinating accessories from the jewelry or shoe department. Car dealers could customize a vehicle, showing customers colors and finishes, all while standing in the parking lot. Transactions could be completed without visiting a register and special orders could be placed on the spot. Cumbersome, expensive kiosks could also be replaced,” Ad Age writes.

Can it that apply to food? Skye Lininger, the chairman of Aisle 7 says it is a certainty. (Full disclosure: I work with Skye on the Aisle 7 board and we are in complete agreement on the potential of the iPad.) The reason is simple: the iPad can easily enable a greater level of customer interaction than any device in use before.

“Customer engagement is expensive and training is costly. Mobile technology may ultimately create opportunities for retailers to engage with customers in a cost-effective way that shoppers will welcome. The iPad is the best device ever for this. It is cheap, it is attractive and it is engaging,” Skye says.

I think he’s right. Imagine managers freed from their offices because paperwork and communications follow them anywhere and in useful form. Imagine service departments able to access information on health, nutrition, pricing or recipes any where in the store with minimal effort. Imagine real time communication on ordering, plan-o-grams, specials—you name it. In short, imagine the entire store enabled to interact with the shopper in any way, any where and any time. Just like that, technology does what it does best: enabling better business practices and improved customer service.

If the iPad lives up to its hype it could mean a revolution in retail. Let’s be honest, technology keeps bringing these kinds of possibilities. If you use a cell phone, an iPod or Facebook you know that some devices and applications actually deliver on the promise.

Here’s what we have to ask: Could retail be on the cusp of a new age of communication that provides instant linkage at every moment of the day to every shopper and associate? More importantly, can we avoid being impacted by this communication revolution?

I’m thinking the answer to both is “no.” And that means, we better start preparing.

For more discussion of the impact of social media and mobile devices, join Michael Sansolo and Kevin Coupe at the MyWebGrocer booth (#2243) during the upcoming FMI show. Kevin will be there Tuesday, May 11, at 2:30 p.m.; Michael at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 12. Kevin and Michael are the co-authors of The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies, is available by clicking here .
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