The BYOD Deep Dive

How retailers can navigate the new world of employee devices

Industry Trends
October 24, 2019

In the early days of smartphones, companies often provided business-specific devices to employees to keep work and personal communication separate. However, now that 81% of Americans own a smartphone, more companies are leveraging the power of the personal computers in their employees’ back pockets to improve communication and customer service on the job. 

The result is the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend. Employee smartphones provide retailers with a new channel for delivering instructions, training material, updated brand and product information, and more.

“The biggest advantage is likely speed,” says Jeremy Baker, CTO of Retail Zipline. “Pulling up a schedule on your phone or texting a group to see who can work your shift is infinitely faster than asking individuals or looking on a bulletin board. Importantly, there’s also the potential for increased community among employees, which research shows leads to increased loyalty and less turnover.” 

The inevitability of BYOD in retail

Regardless of whether your business has made an official policy statement about employees using personal devices in your stores, it’s already happening. Many retail employees are young, and it’s almost as hard to pry them away from their phones as it is to split the atom. 

So, as with many new technologies, it’s become a matter of policy catching up to reality. Some retailers saw the trend as an opportunity to lower costs and increase productivity; others merely acknowledged what was already happening (77% of employees use their own devices at work regardless of the rules) and developed policies in order to mitigate the risks. 

As Lisa Pfifer, owner of Core Competence, wrote:

This horse has not only left the barn, but will trample any IT department that intends to stand in the way. There may be use cases that are inappropriate for BYOD, such as specialized mobile healthcare devices or ultrabooks that carry classified data. But nearly every company has employees who buy and use their own phones and tablets, and those devices are going to find their way into the workplace."

Ultimately, whether it’s because they recognize the many potential benefits or simply accept BYOD as inevitable, it’s high-time for all retailers to give serious thought as to how they want to handle the BYOD trend. 

The pros and cons of implementing BYOD in your retail stores

One reason BYOD has been slower to catch on in retail than in other industries is that many retailers remain reliant on their own in-store technology, such as scanners, cash registers, and store computers. The prospect of integrating systems across hundreds or thousands of locations and personal devices can be daunting. 

In addition, the convenience of embracing BYOD comes with serious considerations, such as how to account for employee time on devices, varied state legislation on the issue, and even liability for what’s posted and where. And then there’s the fact that employers have an obligation to record and store all work-related communications. Work emails will be stored on company servers, but if employees use personal texting for work-related communications, things can get rather sticky.

There are also significant security and regulatory challenges, especially when retail employees use their personal devices to collect and transmit sensitive data like payment information.

On the other hand, the benefits of using mobile devices in-store have been well-documented, especially when it comes to improving the customer experience. Mobile devices make it possible for stores to eliminate lines at checkout, and they empower employees to answer questions faster, order out-of-stock items immediately, and generally enhance a customer’s visit. 

The “pros” of BYOD for retail

Here are some of the primary benefits of using BYOD in a retail environment:

  • The most-cited advantage of BYOD is that it streamlines onboarding. Employees know how to use their phones, so they can get up to speed and feel confident more quickly.

  • Research shows that employees using their own devices are more productive, saving an average of 58 minutes per day. In part, that increase in productivity can be attributed to the fact that employee devices are usually newer and more cutting-edge (corporate technology is typically two-to-three generations behind the consumer market).

  • Companies with BYOD policies say that allowing employees to use their own devices saves money, because they don’t have to purchase and maintain thousands of devices, nor do they have to provide technical support or replace broken devices. While the cost savings vary depending on the number of employees and how they’re supported, Cisco reports that BYOD saves $350 annually per employee.

  • BYOD can also increase the sense of community among store associates. It’s an intangible benefit, but one that yields real returns in the form of increased retention, loyalty, and job satisfaction.

The “cons” of BYOD for retail

Along with the advantages, BYOD also presents some retail-specific challenges:

  • A core concern is the hourly nature of most retail employees. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that employers pay employees for all hours worked. When personal devices come into play, the accounting of those hours becomes more complicated. For instance, does posting to your employer’s Facebook page or sharing a Tweet count as “work?”

  • There are also questions as to the legality of requiring employees to provide their own devices as well as whether employers should be required to reimburse them for data usage as well as the wear and tear on their devices.

    Baker notes that some states have addressed these issues with BYOD-specific laws. For example, California law requires that employers reimburse employees who use their personal devices at work for the data they use. Best Buy handles this by providing free Wi-Fi in its stores and requiring that employees use it, sidestepping the data cost altogether.

  • Data retention presents another major concern. “Devices used for work – even personal devices that could be used for work – are subject to data retention policies and could be subpoenaed in a legal matter,” Baker says. A company app or portal could potentially satisfy data retention requirements, but only if all communication runs through them. Texts, for instance, are an emerging concern, since Millennials tend to prefer text over email. That “offline” use creates a problem, because the organization has no record of texts made from personal devices and therefore can’t fulfil their data retention obligations.

  • There are also personal privacy issues. For example, what happens if IT experts are examining an employee’s personal device for texts subpoenaed in a lawsuit and discover that the employee has been sending texts containing illegal content? Can the employer turn the employee in to the police? Are they required to?

  • Retailers also face the challenge of ensuring that payments processed through employee devices are properly secured. Browser updates, for example, often address security issues, but that won’t do any good if employees don’t download the updates. And what if the neighboring coffee shop has a stronger wi-fi signal, and employees’ phones default to their unsecured network? Retailers should check with their merchant bank to make sure payments processed through personal devices would still meet PCI-DSS standards.

  • Retailers also have to think about what happens when an employee quits or is fired. That’s especially important when an employee leaves suddenly or just doesn’t show up for work one day, because there’s no time for the typical exit process. How can the retailer delete access when they don’t have the phone in question? And what about data stored on the phone?

Those are just a few of the issues retailers need to think about before embracing BYOD. Kristina Podnar, digital governance advisor and author of “The Power of Digital Policies,” suggests:

“Before diving head-first into BYOD, you should consider and develop a policy that addresses labor laws (overtime and cellular data usage reimbursement compensation), privacy and data ownership (who owns the analytics generated on the device, especially under new laws such as CCPA and GDPR), security (protection against data breach and loss), and records management (eDiscovery during lawsuits).”

The verdict on BYOD for retail?

BYOD presents many opportunities for retailers, but many risks, too. However, given that employees are already using their personal devices at work whether you want them to or not, smart retailers will go ahead and develop policies regarding their use. 

For now, the best advice is to borrow from lessons learned in other industries – and, above all, to consult with your own legal team. They can help you with things like drafting employee “terms of service” agreements (identifying conditions under which you may examine texts, personal emails, social media accounts, etc.), whether you have to pay employees if they use their devices for work-related activities when they aren’t at work, whether you have to reimburse them for data usage, etc. They, along with your IT team, can also address issues of data security and customer privacy.

Additionally, keep yourself informed of BYOD trends. Educate yourself and your company on how technology is changing the world of retail, as well as how and when their own personal devices may come into play. You can count on the Retail Zipline blog to keep you informed of new developments as we explore this uncharted territory together!