7-Eleven rolls out rugged handhelds from Symbol

Von Matt Hamblen

7-Eleven Inc. will roll out nearly 12,000 ruggedized MC3000 handheld computers from Symbol Technologies Inc. this year at 5,800 stores in North America as part of a move to keep store workers untethered as they track inventory, 7-Eleven officials said this week.

Symbol demonstrated the new MC3000, priced from US$1,195 to $2,200, this week at the National Retail Federation show in New York. The starting price of the MC3000 is almost half the cost of the Holtsville, N.Y.-based company"s MC9000 rugged handheld, which was introduced last year and is more durable and designed for greater extremes, said Symbol Product Manager Brian Viscount.

7-Eleven plans to provide two MC3000s, along with one new NEC Mobile Operations Terminal, in each of its North American stores, Keith Morrow, vice president of information systems, said in an interview. The NEC Mobile Operations Terminal is a modified laptop computer.

Dallas-based 7-Eleven conducted tests on a dozen devices from a variety of vendors before choosing the Symbol and NEC Corp. hardware for inventory control and purchasing, Morrow said. "The stores are open 24/7 and small, so reliability of the devices is very critical," he said. "We did a lot of drop and spill tests, everything you can imagine."

Morrow said the company needed to replace older DOS-based Symbol handhelds with the MC3000, which has a bigger color screen and gives a worker more freedom, since data can be transferred on the store"s wireless network. Older models had to be placed in a docking station to transmit data.

The MC3000 is based on the Windows CE operating system, which helps 7-Eleven because "most of our new apps are on the .Net framework," he said.

"The crux of the business value of the new devices for us is that it will allow personnel to move out of back-office activities," Morrow said. For example, workers out front in the customer area can place orders for more merchandise on the spot, rather than having to do so in the back room.

7-Eleven also envisions using its wireless networks and the handhelds for automatic monitoring of some store equipment, such as the temperature of food chillers, Morrow said. Having wireless LANs means the Symbol devices could become a customer interaction device, although there are no specific plans, he said.

Symbol placed the value of the deal with 7-Eleven at $8.5 million; 7-Eleven officials declined to comment on the costs.

Symbol dominates the global rugged handheld device industry, with about 75 percent of the market, followed by Intermec Technologies Corp. in Everett, Wash., and Psion Teklogix Corp. in Erlanger, Ky., said Kevin Burden, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based market research company IDC. The global rugged handheld market was estimated at about $2 billion in 2004, he said.

Burden sees a trend toward "durable" handhelds that are less rugged than top-end models, which feature strong polymers to resist damage from being dropped and plastics to seal out dust and liquids.

Handheld manufacturers realize that companies such as 7-Eleven might need a durable device that is less rugged -- and less expensive -- than one carried by a truck driver, for instance, who might be more likely to drop the device, Burden said. The biggest cost for the device involves making them more rugged, he said.