If you're in the market for a 50-inch television, you'll find no shortage of retailers willing to help you make a purchase.
Every day, like every other seller, the electronics and appliance departments at Nebraska Furniture Mart have to compete with the efforts of Internet and national retailers in the race to have the lowest price on the most popular products.
One day it might be televisions, the next it might be tablet computers or cameras. And some days it's all three and a few dozen more.
Staying ahead of the competition can result in hundreds of price changes every day — sometimes as many as 800 at Nebraska Furniture Mart. That's a lot of paper and a lot of legwork to make sure everything stays up-to-date and competitive.
“We used to hand-write every tag in the old days,” said Bob Batt, executive vice president. “We would write the model, manufacturer and price, hang it on there and hope for the best.”
Over the last month, the Mart has been implementing its newest product signage — electronic price tags. Each shelf tag contains an e-ink display, which produces sharp, clear words and prices, and a small infrared receiver to receive updates from transmitters installed near the ceiling throughout the electronics and appliance areas.
“We can change hundreds of price tags in an hour now,” Batt said. “But what really counts is making our system more responsive to customer needs.”
The company is not alone in stepping up its efforts to compete. Some examples:
>> Toys R Us, which lets shoppers pick up online purchases at a local store within three hours, has added a holiday service: If an item isn't available right away, the toy seller will ship it to a nearby store for free. Shoppers can also search a specific store's inventory on the Web before making a trip. To ensure they do make that trip, Toys R Us has started a reservation list for its hottest toys, but shoppers have to sign up at the store.
>> J.C. Penney, Nordstrom and Sears Holdings are among retailers deploying touchscreens and tablets in stores to make consumers aware of all their products and offer recommendations, much as Amazon does. The trick is to combine technology with the human touch only a well-trained salesperson can provide, says Paul Price, CEO of Creative Realities, a digital experience consultant to Macy's and Foot Locker.
>> Nordstrom, Macy's and other department stores have linked their online and store inventories. That helps salespeople close a sale by offering to ship out-of-stock products from another store or the website free of charge. Borrowing a tactic perfected by Amazon, Walmart is starting to view its 4,000-plus U.S. locations as distribution centers and is testing same-day delivery on Web purchases.
>> Best Buy is taking aim at Web merchants with online price matching, partly to grab customers who now use their stores as showrooms to check out items and then go buy them more cheaply on the Internet. “We are taking on showrooming,” said Amy von Walter, a spokeswoman at Best Buy, which has granted salesclerks the ability to match online prices for appliances and hardware, including tablet computers and cameras, during this holiday season.
>> Target similarly vows to match prices with Amazon and the Web stores of Walmart, Best Buy and Toys R Us. “It's instant gratification for guests,” said Dustin Hamilton, Los Angeles district manager for Target. “Instead of waiting one day or four or five days for something to come in the mail, you get it right away for the same price.” The discounter has also added free Wi-Fi to its stores and placed QR bar codes — which can be scanned by smartphones to bring up product information — on ads so shoppers can buy the items directly from their phones.
Nebraska Furniture Mart's new price tag system is manufactured by a Swedish company called Pricer. Mart product buyers can make price changes in the main database and have the price tags update automatically.
That way if Best Buy is having a one-day sale on Acer notebook computers, the Furniture Mart can easily and quickly react.
“We try to take as many steps out of a process as we can without affecting quality or customer experience,” Batt said. “We want to make things faster and easier.”
Technological advances extend to point-of-sale systems as well. That means Seth McMillan doesn't need to be at his new Old Market men's boutique to manage inventory and sales there. From his desk at his day job, the owner of McLovin at 1010 S. 10th St. can create a “shopping frenzy” by thinking up a quick sale and posting it on Facebook and Twitter, as well as emailing customers.
He did just that earlier this fall, advertising, “Hey Omaha, who wants a flash sale? Over 20 styles of hats are 50% off today only!”
Then he logged into his sales system remotely and changed the pricing on those hats. While the actual price tags don't change, the store's cloud-based point-of-sale system automatically changes the prices wirelessly in employees' iPads, which they use instead of a cash register to ring up sales throughout the shop.
“We definitely could not have done that 10 years ago,” McMillan said.
Batt says it's all part of the ever-changing face of the retail business.
“You gotta change or the train will leave the station.”
World-Herald staff writer Barbara Soderlin contributed to this report, which includes material from Bloomberg News and the Los Angeles Times.