Motorola is wasting no time in leveraging last year's $3.9 billion acquisition of Symbol Technologies. In March, the vendor giant introduced the MC35, a personal digital assistant for the enterprise sector that features a rugged form factor and control capabilities that make it particularly well-suited for use in construction and warehouse environments. This month, Motorola takes another step into the enterprise space with the MC17, a device aimed at the retail segment, primarily grocery stores.

The MC17 is designed to give retailers an edge in attracting news customers and retaining existing customers — and getting all of them to spend more money while they're in the store. Motorola designed and is manufacturing the hardware, while application developer Cuesol is creating a variety of software applications that will let customers self-checkout as they move through the store, while retailers track their movements, their purchases and provide them with added-value coupons designed to trigger impulse buys.

Here's one way it could work:

  • The shopper arrives at the store and picks up an MC17 from a kiosk located near the entrance.

  • The shopper then scans his customer loyalty card, which alerts the retailer that the customer is in the store.

  • As the shopper wanders the aisles, he scans each item he wants to purchase using the MC17 and places the items in bags he already has positioned in the cart.

  • When the shopper makes his final selection, he heads to the checkout area, where a barcode on the MC17 is scanned, which transfers the data to the store's cash register system.

  • The shopper receives an itemized bill and then completes the transaction.

The ability to get customers through checkout lines faster will help retailers, particularly grocery stores, both retain and recruit customers, according to Sheldon Safir, director of mobile computer for Motorola's enterprise mobility business unit.

“It's a differentiator,” he said. “If you get them through the line faster, they'll be happier customers.”

Mike Grimes, Cuesol's senior vice president of sales and business development, agreed: “The thing customers hate the most is waiting at the checkout line.”

On that note, store employees using hand-held scanners can pre-checkout customers waiting in long lines, so that when they reach the front of the line all they have to do is make payment, a tactic Safir called “line-busting.”

But the real opportunity for the retail sector afforded by the MC17 is the ability to track the whereabouts of customers while they're shopping — which the device does by leveraging the store's Wi-Fi system — and capturing what they buy, which enables the retailer over time to create a historical purchasing profile for each customer which — through “smart analytics driven by a lot of complex algorithms,” Grimes said — can be used to trigger a response.

For instance, if the retailer knows a shopper buys a particular brand of pretzels every time he or she walks into the store, an application embedded in the MC17 — which weighs just 6.5 ounces and can withstand multiple drops to a tile-covered concrete floor from a height of 4 feet, according to Motorola — can be used to churn out an incentive coupon as the shopper approaches the snack aisle. Or, if the shopper buys spaghetti, the MC17 could provide alerts regarding savings on his or her favorite brand of sauce.

Knowing the shopper's location in the store at all times is the key to leveraging the opportunity, according to Safir. As grocery shoppers tend to be impulsive and distracted — they often are in a hurry and/or have small children in tow — it doesn't make much sense to spit out the pretzels coupon when they're in the produce aisle. When timed properly, “retailers will see more in the basket,” he said.

Grimes discounted the potential for customer recoil, either because they feel they are being cyber-stalked as they move through the store or because they don't like the idea of their purchases being tracked and analyzed in an attempt to manipulate their buying decisions. “Privacy shouldn't be an issue because this is an opt-in service,” he said.

Sean Ryan, mobile enterprise analyst for research firm IDC, agreed. “Nobody likes the Orwellian factor, but we accept it,” he said, adding that the MC17 is “neat technology and a good idea.”

But Ryan cautioned that retailers opting to use the MC17 might encounter a few challenges. First, there is the learning curve, for both customers and employees. Second, grocery customers in the U.S. have been slow to embrace the concept of self-checkout, so they might not be very enthusiastic about a device that represents the next phase of the evolution. Third, given that customers are hyper-sensitive about the amount of time they spend in the store — which both Safir and Grimes acknowledge is one the primary drivers behind the development of the MC17 — Ryan wonders what happens when the inevitable glitch occurs.

“The MC17 could be a differentiator — or it could be a problem,” he said.