Wholesale retailer melds wireless LANs with VOIP

BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc. has installed the kind of wireless LAN commonly used by retailers to help manage inventory and price verification. This new system has some unique twists, including support for wireless voice-over-IP (VOIP) phones and wireless scales.

Tom McMahon, vice-president and manager of system services at Natick, Mass.-based BJ’s, said the company completed installation of wireless LANs at all 131 of its stores last month. It decided to integrate wireless IP phones into the system as a means of enabling store managers to improve customer service.

“We want our [store] managers on the floor and not sitting behind a desk,” McMahon said.

BJ’s tried using cordless phones, whose base units plug into a standard phone line, but they lack sufficient range. “We have 115,000-square-foot buildings, and 900-MHz cordless phones just don’t work,” McMahon said. Initially, senior store managers will receive the VOIP phones; the rollout will possibly be extended to managers of departments such as the bakery in the future.

BJ’s has installed 802.11b wireless LANs from Holtsville, N.Y.-based Symbol Technologies Inc. McMahon said four access points operating in the 2.4-GHz band are needed to completely cover each store. These LANs provide the links for bar code scanners and the phones, as well as wireless scales the company has installed in meat departments. McMahon said BJ’s is also in the process of evaluating a Symbol wireless LAN system with Kerberos security built in.

Gemma Paulo, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR in Scottsdale, Ariz., said adding a VOIP wireless phone to a network is a challenge.

Data networks that support VOIP need to be configured to ensure that the packets that carry a phone conversation get priority over data packets a difficult process, Paulo said. Wireless IP phone technology is also immature and expensive, she added, noting that only two vendors Symbol and Boulder, Colo.-based Spectra Link Corp. currently offer the phones. They cost about US$700 each, she said.