Halloween is coming up, so here are some scary stories for you: You're looking for shoes, and ask the salesperson if your favorites are available in a size 12. And then, like a doctor giving you an unpleasant diagnosis, the staffer says those dreaded magic words: “I'll have to check in the stockroom.” Join in with me, now … “And he was never seen again.”

Or this time, you're running the store, and the holiday rush is on. A customer comes in and starts to look around, maybe even picking up a few items. But then she looks up and sees a queue at the cashwrap that makes the Great Wall of China seem puny. She drops her selections, heads for the door… “And she was never seen again.”

Escaping the horrors

Chills the blood, doesn't it? Not to mention the profit statement. But there may be a way to escape these horrors. It's wireless POS technology, and it's closer than you think. Building suppliers use it to let customers scan their own purchases direct from the lumber yard, avoiding lineups altogether. The Gap, meanwhile, is using a handheld POS system to let roving salesclerks ring up transactions for customers who otherwise might be getting tired of standing in line.

The technology isn't all that new, according to Don Gilbert, the National Retail Federation's senior vice president of information technology. Gilbert says the hospitality industry has been using it for some time, arming servers with devices that allow them to zap orders to the kitchen or find out if there's any French onion soup left. And even in traditional retail, wireless technology has become popular back-of-house for such functions as inventory and stocking needs. But will it help the incredible disappearing shoe salesperson?

Gilbert thinks it could. Sears also seems to think so. The retailer has issued wireless PDAs to floor staff for just these situations. Dennis Hadley, CEO of Seattle-based Enterprise Information Solutions, says this sort of technology suits larger retailers and chains perfectly because it takes an economy of scale to make the hardware and software investments profitable.

Coming up…

But what's coming up? Personal digital devices, from Web-connected phones to PDAs, seem as common as credit cards these days. When will customers be able to use their wireless technology at the mall, from selecting items to making electronic payment? That, according to Gilbert, is where things get tricky. A key issue is standardization — how does a store create a display that works on a cell phone and a Palm Pilot? Another challenge is that many of these devices employ unregulated spectra for transmitting and receiving data, which means, for example, that a renegade CB radio buff could blow the devices out of the water.

But Gilbert thinks these problems will be surmounted. For now, he suggests that stores supply the customers with the devices for in-store use, or simply keep the devices in the hands of the staff, making everyone happy. And even at Halloween, there's something nice about happy endings.

W.S. Moore, III, is Muncie, Ind.-based writer.