Fox UK using handhelds to manage DVD sales, inventory

Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment Ltd. has annual sales of roughly US$4 billion in DVDs and VHS tapes in the U.K., and approximately half of that revenue comes in during the rush to buy movies right after they’re released. That makes it vital for Fox to maximize its in-store promotions during those narrow windows of opportunity, according to David Stevens, the company’s trade marketing controller.

With that in mind, the London-based Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment UK unit of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. decided last year to outfit 75 sales representatives with wireless handheld computers equipped with digital cameras, Stevens said. Their job: to document that individual retail stores have fulfilled agreements to install traffic-stopping displays and banners to push a particular release while it’s still hot.

In-store promotions are key to sales of DVDs and VHS tapes featuring big theatrical releases such as Titanic, which recorded 18 percent of its U.K. sales the first day it was out, according to Stevens. He spoke with Computerworld at the Gartner Inc. enterprise wireless conference here yesterday.

Fox pushes sales with elaborate and expensive in-store displays negotiated with the top management of such companies as the U.K. division of Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. But if promotional displays are not installed or are only partially installed, then Fox has “missed the opportunity to win the battle in the store for impulse buyers,” Stevens said.

In the past, when stores needed extra stock of fast-selling titles, Fox had to rely on week-old paper inventory reports, resulting in what it considered yet another missed opportunity. To solve that problem, Fox last year turned to Zync-Solutions Ltd., a mobile applications developer in the U.K., to develop a wireless handheld merchandising and inventory system.

Ian Fisk, managing director of Zync, said his company developed a system for Fox built around a Hewlett-Packard Co. iPaq handheld beefed up with an add-on digital camera module that uses the computer’s screen as a viewfinder. The system also includes a bar code scanner and a wireless modem that sends data back to Fox over a mobile network in the U.K. The network is operated by the T-Mobile division of Deutsche Telekom AG in Bonn; Extended Systems Inc. in Boise, Idaho, provided the synchronization software.

The camera is key to ensuring that retail outlets install the promotional displays Fox expects, Stevens said, with the wireless link providing near-real-time snapshots of displays as the field sales force uploads pictures from various stores in their territories. The bar code scanning system allowed Fox to automate an earlier paper-based process, cutting the time field workers spent on inventory by 30 percent and slashing the time needed for manual data input.

Although Stevens declined to provide costs or ROI on the system, he said it has already helped Fox boost sales by 10 percent. Now, other units of Fox Home Entertainment, including the company’s Australia division, are considering similar systems to support their field sales forces.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, called the Fox system a “breakthrough” in the use of a variety of digital technologies to manage in-store merchandising, and he predicted that other retail categories will soon see the utility of using near-real-time digital pictures to monitor in-store displays.