SAN FRANCISCO -- When considering the untapped (pun intended) potential of my mobile phone, I often find myself wondering how it will evolve in my own life, taking more of a role in payment, boarding a plane or in my work as a writer for convenience stores.
I've already found I need a keyboard to write articles on my phone, so that's bit problematic. I'm thinking tablet, but the phone may still be in play as I've seen a friend of mine dictate to her cellphone and then tap corrections her transcribed words before hitting send.
I happened to be wondering this out loud while on the phone with Vladik Rikhter. He's a San Francisco-based CEO of a company called Zenput. It makes an operational app where managers can take photos to verify tasks done, like the set-up of a promotional display or maintenance issues. They can write notes and--very soon--assign followup tasks to the proper person.
Here's how that conversation went:
Q: Why is everything going mobile?
A: Several reasons. Basically, mobile phones come with a lot of elements you'd need on the job. It's a barcode scanner, a video camera, it has audio recording, GPS--and it fits into your pocket. You can type out notes like a laptop without needing to carry a laptop. We're a mobile-first company, so we're trying to achieve 98% usage on a mobile device. So people can walk into the store environment without a clipboard or laptop, answer questions and immediately send in their findings.
Q: Is it really just about reducing the amount of stuff people carry around?
A: They're also saving time. Before, people used to go home and type up their notes, attach a photo and send it back to the office. And on the other end, at the office, it's much more efficient.
Q: How so?
A: Before, the ops guy might ask his stores to set up a display on a Tuesday and want to know if all the stores got it done. He may receive disparate excel files, text messages, an attached photo or do phone calls back and forth.
Q: So it brings uniformity to the reporting.
A: Yes. Another big focus is exceptions, so we'd set up criteria for what a retailer is looking for and if a store scored below 70, there's a red flag.
Q: What kinds of criteria are we talking about?
A: We're typically talking about four things. The first is general operations--are things in place? Is everything working? Are the lights on? Then there's the brand standards--are the employees properly dressed? Is the store clean? How are the bathrooms? Is the trash overflowing? The third revolves around execution, like promotional execution. Is the new Super Bowl display properly set up in 200 stores? They need to see the stores that have not done so and automatically assign a follow-up task to someone. Then the fourth is to notify people outside the organization. Sometimes they need to create a task for people like vendor reps.
Q: Sounds like a lot of minutia.
A: Today, ops people field a lot of emails to track store audits, identify problems and solve them. But we treat our in-box like a to-do list. If I've got four unread emails, it means I have to do something for four different people. When you have 600 emails, it's painful. But our industry is task driven. So much of it is putting product on the shelves. You don't need an entire email behind it.
Q: Okay, that blows my mind. I just saw a ton of emails evaporate into an app that automatically tells five specific people to fix five real problems. If I ever get my head out of the weeds, I can think of how I do things now and replace all that with my phone.
A: Is that a question?
Angel Abcede has written about technology in the convenience industry for over two decades, tracking how retailers develop and deploy solutions covering everything from store operations to item-level analytics.