One of those rascally 'sources' inside the industry has claimed that one of the nation's top 10 retailers plans to hand out iPads to all its sales staff. The exact retailer isn't wildly important, although most people seem to expect Best Buy. What matters is the precedent this would set.
An iPad for every salesperson ends one of two ways. Either it works, speeding things up on the floor and improving the quality of feedback employees are able to give customers. Or it doesn't work, and the sales staff just spend all day playing Angry Birds and IMing their friends about how much more fun their job is with an iPad.
Over the last year, I've already been in several situations where iPads were used en masse by staff to coordinate and communicate. At a whisky tasting last month, I was checked in on an iPad. I was also at a press event late last year where the same thing happened. I've seen iPads used to pull up and store drink recipes and to provide employees with quick access to FAQs and live maps of an event.
The tablet form factor is ideal for walking and 'computing'. Sales staff that have quick access to spec sheets and the ability to answer customer queries via Google are at an advantage over traditional electronics sales staff. When pressed with hard questions, Best Buy employees tend to either lie, or shift people over to a Geek Squad employee. Who then lies.
There's also a certain level of mental comfort that comes from seeing a swarm of uniformed salespeople, all packing magical tablets. You'll be more likely to trust someone about a product if you can see them using it for themselves, right in front of you.
But there are also major practical downsides to equipping your whole fleet of minions with $499 tablets. Most pressing...how in the hell are they supposed to hold these iPads? Will they be expected to just hang on to a 1.3-1.5 pound tablet all day, shifting it uncomfortably from arm to arm and setting it down whenever the manager isn't looking? Or will they all get adorable little iPad holsters for when the tablet isn't in use?
Theft would seem to be another major problem with this idea. I'd expect employee "shrink" to be minimal here, since it will be easy to track who was issued which iPad. But, again, you're going to have employees setting down and turning their backs on these things all the time. Occasionally in the middle of gigantic seasonal rushes where there are far too many people to keep track of. Any store with that many iPads just 'walking around' will be a magnet for petty theft.
The first store- probably Best Buy- to be the guinea pig for this new program is sure to learn a hell of a lot about how functional tablets are in a retail environment. But that doesn't mean "iPads for everyone" will be a success. The iPad may still be too new and shiny to act as a workhorse on a live sales floor.