The Perspective 
Wednesday, 06 May 2009
Last month, I was invited to visit the Microsoft Retail Experience Center near the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. We've talked about the REC before, as well as shared with you a video walkthrough, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to see it first-hand.

It's a truly remarkable retail test lab, one that could easily be mistaken for a real electronics superstore, but you'd never know it if you drove by: The 20,000-square-foot facility is tucked away inside an unmarked building with no Microsoft signage anywhere to be seen. It's an invitation-only affair, a place where the company can bring retailers, partners and focus groups to test-run merchandising strategies and in-store technologies.

Stephen Sparrow, Microsoft's senior industry marketing manager for U.S. retail, is the driving force behind the center. He said his emphasis is on making the retail experience more connected, a word he uses a lot. It's at the core of his philosophy of what retail must become in order to thrive ? connecting stores with one another, with their employees, and with their customers.

"Disney used to say, when you're on a Disney cruise line, we'd better be able to recognize you as someone who just dropped four grand on a cruise," he said. "(We want to) create a world where you have more transparency, where you can deliver the right information and business insights to the right person, in an actionable way, when they need it and where they need it."

SLIDESHOW: Take a look inside the Microsoft Retail Experience Center

The store itself is a faux electronics store, replete with big-screen TVs, laptops, Xbox games and boxed software. But beneath the surface, the emphasis on connectedness bubbles up in some unique and new ways.

Take the shopping cart, with integrated touchscreen. Anyone who has attended a retail trade show in recent years has seen any number of such smart carts, but here it is integrated with the store's loyalty program to connect store database with shopper from the moment the shopping experience begins. An interactive store map, with turn-by-turn directions, not only delivers the shopper to the right place but builds an ever-growing pool of behavioral data.

Most of the products the shopper passes by in the store bear a Microsoft Tag, a technology that Sparrow calls "leveraged capital" ? a unique example of an in-store technology that the customer paid for himself, the cell phone. Giving a shopper a handheld scanner is one thing, but utilizing a device that is already in his pocket is quite another.

Giant touchscreens dot the walls, allowing customers to browse never-ending catalogs in a very intuitive fashion. Similarly hands-on experiences are served up by a Surface tabletop computer. In each instance, the devices in the store are pulling from the same central database, which not only insures a consistent experience, it saves the retailer time and money ? a screenshot or a product photo or a box cover need only be scanned once, and can then be automatically resized and repurposed for whatever touchpoint needs it.

Making the supply chain fully visible from source to shelf requires tagging, and in a perfect world, retailers will have RFID tags applied by the manufacturer. But for smaller retailers or those with a manageable assortment of products (or perhaps assortments from a large number of sources), the answer lies at the back of the REC. A desk bears a computer station with an RFID printer; as products come in the back door, a staffer prints a tag for each one and applies it to the box. Boxes are walked through a pair of reader gates, and from that moment on, the store is aware of each and every product for sale in the house.

In the back office, the database is mined through a data-rich but easy-to-understand management dashboard. From a single location, a manager can see any idiosyncrasy at the device level, and can make smart scheduling decisions. Color-coded feeds give real-time sales data, out-of-stock alerts, camera arrays, and even comparison charts detailing other stores in the network.

Sparrow pointed out that it's not just customers that benefit from the connected experience ? it empowers store managers to do their job better.

"You look at store managers ? retailers typically take their best sales rep and make him the manager and put him behind a desk with a Monday morning report," he said. "We say, give him that report mobile. And do it quickly, so he can get back on the sales floor, helping customers."

Sparrow said the REC is a "living, breathing facility," one that is evolving over time. In recent weeks, his team has begun experimenting with interactive storefront windows and new merchandising strategies.

"We understand that it's all about the customer? how do you help them find what they need," he said. "And how do you help the employee help that customer."
Posted by: James Bickers AT 05:30 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  
Monday, 16 October 2006
David Dill is an educated man with a simple idea: Giving voters proof that their votes were counted correctly. ATMs have receipts, so why not print receipts for voters after they’ve used an electronic voting machine?
Dill launched in 2003 to promote the practice of giving voters and election officials a paper back-up to go along with the widely-deployed e-voting machines of the last few years.
The 2000 presidential election raised the interest in how we vote to an all-time high. After the hanging-chad debacle in Florida, federal legislators passed the Help America Vote Act, which included billions of dollars to upgrade election equipment and improve practices. The advantages of e-voting over the old systems include a faster process, ease of use and more accurate results.
A February report on the 2004 election by the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project attributes one million saved votes to improved voting equipment and procedures after the 2000 election.
Residual votes are ballots cast in which a voter fails to vote or machines fail to record them. In each election, a few people go to the polls but choose not to vote (experts estimate it to be about half of one percent). In the 2004 election, the residual vote was 1.1 percent, down from the 1.9 percent in the 2000 election.
While e-voting machines show provable results in some cases, discrepancies with their record keeping in recent elections have caused more public scrutiny and suspicions about the equipment that was designed to improve obviously flawed and outdated systems. Perhaps in the rush to adopt technology that was a vast improvement over levers and punch cards, the comfort of paper was too quickly overlooked.
Adding to this worry is a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice. While acknowledging that e-voting systems have yet to be infiltrated, the report cites the potential for systems to be hacked. Elections officials could gain the public’s trust of these new systems by using these guidelines:
A paper trail. Both voters and officials need this assurance to independently verify the results.
Uninterruptible power supply. An electronic power conditioner (think of a sophisticated surge protector) and a battery backup can keep systems running even if the power isn’t.
Wired connections. Some states (California, Minnesota and New York) have banned wireless components from e-voting devices.
Training. Poll workers should be required to train for a certain number of hours before working the polls.
Well-designed forms. Just as poorly designed paper forms have confused voters, e-voting forms must be well laid out.
Secured equipment. Stop “sleepovers,” periods of time before the election during which poll workers keep the machines, oft en at home. This only opens the process to potential tampering.
Availability of paper ballots. In the uncommon occurrence of system failure, paper ballots can be used as a last resort.
In discussing e-voting with colleagues, one said he couldn’t understand why we don’t vote online. He commented that banks had figured out how to make online banking safe and asked: What’s more sensitive than people’s money? Obviously, voters would have to be authenticated. Another colleague suggested assigning each voter an ID number and allowing them to choose a PIN. Advances in biometrics also provide hope for authentication. summarizes the goal of this debate well: “The right to have one’s vote counted properly is a cornerstone of our democratic system. Making sure that our election systems are reliable and publicly verifiable enfranchises voters and increases public confidence and participation in our political process.”
Posted by: David Drain AT 02:31 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  
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