Texas Supermarket Stocks Up on iPhones, Mobile Apps

Texas grocery store chain United Supermarkets starts down the iPhone trail with a mobile workforce management app that simplifies communication and keeps shift schedules under control. But this Lone Star chain has only begun circling the mobile wagons.

Fifty grocery-store general managers spread out across western Texas are getting shiny, new iPhones—and presumably holsters, too.

Managers at some of the bigger stores of this Lone Star state chain will also be getting a killer app, called Mobile Manager Connect, from the company Vortex Connect, which will allow them to tap into a powerful workforce management system from Kronos. They'll be able to view shift schedules, approve changes on the fly, clock workers in and out, and even fire off text messages to off-duty checkers to fill holes.

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(L-R) David Crews, director of strategic projects; Mickey Hutson, service manager; Ben Janeke, training and development specialist; and Roger Metze, application admin.

And that's only the start of this tall Texas iPhone tale.

"In the grand scheme of things, Manager Connect is just one of many utilities that we'll utilize the mobile device for," says K. David Crews, director of strategic projects at United Supermarkets, a family-owned retail grocery chain. "There's a long-term strategy there."

Rolling out iPhones isn't just about putting gadgets in people's hands or even making employees mobile. With smart iOS apps arriving daily on the iTunes App Store, thanks to some of the world's sharpest software developers, iPhones in the enterprise are fast becoming the platform for the future.

Today, the slick iOS app is workforce management; tomorrow, it might be social networking.

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While iPhone faces tough competition from crafty veterans like the BlackBerry and upstart gunslingers like Android, it's still the fastest draw in the enterprise. In Good Technology's latest customer study, iPhones represented 55 percent of all mobile activations compared to 19.5 percent for Android smartphones.

Count Texas-based United Supermarkets among the iPhone herd. Last year, United Supermarkets began giving iPhones to general managers in each of its 50 stores, including stores in rural areas. The goal was to make it easier for managers to communicate. After all, grocery store managers lead a mobile work life, roaming up and down aisles and checking in with checkers.

Workforce management vendor Kronos integrated Vortex Connect's mobile apps, which has led to United Supermarkets testing Mobile Manager Connect in a six-store pilot program. "Now they play together nicely, which allows a manager to access one system," Crews says.

Mobile Manager Connect eases a grocery manager's biggest headache: a constantly fluctuating work schedule for up to 400 workers that changes with the sales forecast and the whims of workers, such as turnover and sick days. Traditionally, a manager tracks down workers to take sudden shift openings by making phone calls, leaving voicemails and waiting for call backs.

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With Mobile Manager Connect, a manager indicates a shift opening over their iPhone. The Kronos workforce tool finds available clerks and automatically sends requests via text, voicemail or email to their personal phones. A clerk can accept the shift request right on his or her own phone by sending a text message back.

Other iOS apps are in the works, too. Crews says he's looking at a bunch of mobile opportunities in areas such as business intelligence, social feedback and reporting. There might even be an app for workers that gives them capabilities beyond mobile texting, such as visibility into their schedules and the ability to not only accept shifts but give up shifts, too.

"The go-forward plan is much broader," Crews says, adding, "Generally speaking, grocery retail is towards the back of the technology curve. But we're a little bit ahead of the curve with how we are utilizing Vortex's mobility solution—and that's exciting."

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

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