Remote Controlled

CHICAGO TRIBUNE – Brad Oyen, who manages six Go Wireless mall stores stretching across northern Illinois, to drive from store to store every day to check up on business.

Now, the district manager follows activity in the stores simply by looking at his laptop.

That’s because most Go Wireless stores, a U.S. Cellular retailer, have been wired for sight and sound so managers can remotely monitor the outlets. Using a system of cameras and high-speed connections provided by Sovus Media of Appleton, Wis., employees at the stores can consult with managers using wireless headsets and two-way microphones.

The result of this partnership has helped Go Wireless train employees to be better salespeople. And they’re not the only early adopters using remote technology.

Fast-food companies like McDonald’s Corp. and Great American Cookie are leveraging cameras, remote call centers and the Internet to maximize employee efficiency.

Ron Hammer, co-founder of Sovus Media, said it comes down to assuring a consistent level of service across an entire chain of stores without sacrificing customer service.

But Big Brother isn’t cheap. Go Wireless spent about $7,000 per location to install three fixed cameras and several pan-tilt-zoom cameras. Yet it helped trim costs by maximizing the sales territories of Go Wireless’ district managers.

McDonald’s franchises in Colorado are using a different kind of technology to improve service and reduce employee theft. The drive- through crew is leaving the order-taking to centralized call centers, some of which are in different states. This frees up employees to prepare and serve food.

Since drive-through windows can account for 65 percent to 70 percent of a store’s daily business, accuracy and speed are important. But ordering mistakes always have been a sore spot with drive-through customers.

Craig Tengler, chief marketing officer for Andover, Mass.-based Exit 41, said the call centers provide faster and more consistent service and minimize “shrink,” an industry term for in-store theft. Exit 41 is one of several companies hired by McDonald’s franchisees to implement the remote call centers.

The fast-food industry always has had razor-thin profit margins and is receptive to anything that will reduce overhead.

“Especially if they can do it without impacting the customer,” said retail consultant George Whalin.

Tengler recalls one incident at a Colorado Springs store. A regular customer who ordered the same food every day at the same time said the drive-through undercharged him a dollar for his meal. But somebody in the drive-through crew turned out to be responsible. They had been regularly overcharging the customer for weeks.

To accommodate the new approach, ordering is done further back in the drive-through lane, which has been split into two or three lanes. Cars pull up aside each other and order simultaneously. The cars that finish first then drive forward to pick up their order.

A digital snapshot is taken so drive-through workers can match the order to the correct customer. It’s a simple idea that has significantly increased the ability to fill orders at the drive- through windows.

“They are now serving as many as 125 to 160 cars per high volume hour as opposed to 75 to 85,” said Tengler.

Executives at Oak Brook-based McDonald’s did not return calls for this story.

Before installing remote monitoring technology at Go Wireless, district managers were assigned three to five stores. Now it’s typically 10 stores for a single manager.

Oyen routinely drops in on employees using his laptop.

“I can log in and listen to their sales presentation while they’re doing it,” he said. “When I’m there they can be nervous.”

The surveillance is openly disclosed to customers.

“Most people don’t mind,” said Hammer. “We’ve never had a complaint. The store employees of Go Wireless are paid on a commission basis. So anything that helps them sell better makes them more receptive to the idea.”

Of course, cameras are no substitute for in-store managers or regular visits. At least not yet.

“The difficult part is maintaining the status quo in the store,” Whalin said. “Making sure everybody does their job, maintaining discipline. I don’t think you can do that remotely.”

The technology seems to work best when used to supplement management, users say. That is especially true in stores with small retail footprints and few employees, such as mall kiosks.

“The optimal environment is where you have a limited product in the store, and there isn’t a lot of skill needed. If you’ve got something simple and easily monitorable, it works,” Whalin said.

Michael Solomon came up with his own solution for remotely monitoring his Great American Cookie stores. The chain is based in Las Vegas but spans from coast to coast. Each store has seven employees and a manager.

Solomon wanted a way to check up on stores without having to fly about the country. He also wanted the technology to help determine why one store would outsell others by a large margin.

The mystery was solved after installing the cameras.

At the better-performing stores, “We found the manager always stands at the front decorating cookies,” Solomon said. “People stop by, point and buy more of them.”

He wired 10 stores himself using off-the-shelf parts from a big- box electronics store. The three-camera packages Solomon now uses cost about $4,000 to wire all the stores. They monitor mall traffic outside a store, shoppers on the sales floor and transactions over the counter.

Solomon can access the live feed from anywhere through the Internet.

“If there’s a slow day, I can watch and see when the slow hours were and see whether anybody is walking by the counter, see whether the store was open, see whether we had any product in the showcase,” he said.

Some employees initially were uneasy, but Solomon said the cameras helped clear one worker of fraud.

“This was a trusted employee. We sat down and watched the tape, and we found out the employee was hoodwinked by a customer. She was busy that day and the only person at the counter.”

It also caught employees giving food away and underringing the register.

“We had a beverage supplier who brought in 19 cases of product. The next morning we took inventory and realized we’re missing a case. You can plain as day see on the camera the delivery driver leaving with one,” said Solomon.

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Under a watchful eye

How a few companies are using networks and surveillance cameras to help improve sales:


At some Colorado locations, drive-through orders are processed at off-site call centers, nearly doubling the number of customers served per hour and reducing employee theft.

Go Wireless

The chain of mobile-phone stores uses cameras to monitor sales personnel. A district manager can watch and listen to any of the stores in his territory from a laptop.

Great American Cookie

The bakery chain monitors traffic at far-flung stores to pinpoint why some locations are able to outsell others.