Creating Connections

From restaurants to retail stores, small businesses are turning to wireless solutions

In a bustling restaurant in downtown Taylor, South Carolina, waiters are connected via watches that allow them to communicate with their customers. In Atlanta, some Hawks fans are using specially equipped mobile phones to pay for pizza wirelessly at the concession stand in Philips Arena. And in Detroit, employees in a small distribution center are using Radio Frequency Identification tags and readers to store and track data on products.

Eager to maximize productivity and profitability with limited resources, small companies are in a good position to take advantage of wireless options available on the market. “The small businesses we work with are much more aggressive in their use of wireless, versus larger firms,” says Ken Denman, chairman and CEO of Redwood Shores, California-based iPass, a developer of connectivity services for mobile workers. “They tend to be more adaptable and want to deploy wireless on a companywide basis as quickly as possible.”

Wireless solutions help companies connect with their customers. At Fatz Cafe in Taylor, the 31-restaurant casual dining chain is in the process of implementing a wireless application from Charlotte, North Carolina-based ESP Systems, which has developed a product that links all of a restaurant’s servers, managers, and patrons via a system of wireless hubs (located on the tables) and watches (worn by employees). Steve Bruce, the restaurant’s CEO, says the company took the wireless route as a way to put more control in the hands of its guests.

“We wanted to improve our level of guest satisfaction,” says Bruce, who was concerned at first that employees would see the system as a crutch, allowing them to only serve customers when summoned via the wireless network. To make sure that didn’t happen, he says employees were coached and trained extensively on how to use the technology. From a cost standpoint, he says being able to implement the technology without having to retrofit and hard wire existing restaurants is another benefit.

Some American banks and wireless companies allow consumers to use their cell phones as wireless payment devices. Since January, roughly 150 Atlanta Hawk fans have been testing ViVOtech’s mobile payment services to purchase merchandise, food, and tickets by waving their Nokia mobile phone, equipped with Near Field Communication technology, next to a terminal with a wireless point-of-sale reader. The transactions are charged to a credit card using account information stored in the mobile phone.

Expect to see even more companies taking the wireless route in the future, says Devin Green, ESP Systems’ CEO. Still highly fragmented in terms of the number of solutions available, and the fact that not all of those systems can “talk to each other,” the market will likely evolve to where fewer devices can handle more functions. “When that happens,” says Green, “wireless options will become even more compelling for the business owner looking to streamline operations, increase employee productivity, and improve customer service.”

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