Dierbergs Markets Checks out wireless phone systems


Originally published July 27-August 2, 2001 in the St. Louis Business Journal INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

When a page comes in, Linda Bitter, store director for the Lafayette Center Dierbergs, doesn’t alter her path as she walks through the store. She simply reaches into her pocket and answers her wireless phone.

“It’s made a huge difference,” Bitter said. “It’s a lot more convenient for me to answer customer questions. It’s also been a big help if customers become sick. I remember one time when I was working at another Dierbergs store a guy had a heart attack. Since I had the wireless phone, I could call for help right there and I never had to leave the customer, run to find a phone,  or yell for someone else to call.”

Although Dierbergs Markets first decided to try wireless phone in its store to cut down on overhead pages, additional benefits such as the one Bitter described have now made them a must, said Bob Francis, director of engineered services for Dierbergs Markets.

“People love them,” he said. “It’s a better way to stay in touch with customers and other employees. Employees can now call a manager if they have a question without announcing a page to the whole store.”

Dierbergs Markets is not the only company that is replacing their intercom systems with wireless phones. Sonacom It Partners, a voice, video and data services company that installed the wireless phone systems for Dierbergs Markets, has other clients in the St. Louis area including Hydromat and Grant Medial Clinic, an adult internal medicine clinic.

“Once companies realize how much they can use this system, they discover how much they need it,” said Mike Tippit, resource manager for Sonacom. “It’s like having your communications center at your hip.”

For Grant Medical Clinic, the goal was to make sure patients and other clinic staff would have easy access to doctors and doctors’ assistants. The clinic installed the system is April 2000.

“It’s really improved our efficiency,” said Maureen Ferrario, an administrator at the clinic. “Before, phone calls went to the front office staff, and the doctor had to be paged and then find a phone or else the staff had to physically track down the doctor or assistant. Now each person has an emergency extension as well as a second extension on their wireless phone so that emergency calls will ring on the phone and not be sent to voice mail.”

The decision to install the new technology comes with a price, however. To install the system in each store, Dierbergs paid between $15,000 to $20,000, depending on the store’s size and number of handheld units or phones bought. Grant Medical Clinic paid about $65,000 to supply their office with 12 wireless phones, new desk phones and a switchboard operator console to maintain an automated phone exchange in the evening.

The Sonacom system works by connecting to the phone system already in place. Several small devices with antennas are placed around the building, creating a circular zone which handles all phone signals.

Dierbergs tried several other alternatives before deciding on the wireless phones. Stores first tried zone paging, but soon discovered it was hard to find someone in a certain zone at a certain time. The company also tried a wireless phone system similar to those used in some homes but was not satisfied with the results.

The store then installed two different wireless phone systems, Nortel and NEC, in two different stores to find out which the employees preferred. They chose the NEC system, and since 1996 they have gradually installed NEC wireless phone systems into all 17 stores. The 18th store at Warson Woods uses the Nortel system, however, because it was the Nortel test store. A 19th store being built in Brentwood also will include the NEC system.

“Our vision is that this is a tremendous tool and we will continue to purchase a wireless system for our stores,” Francis said. “We are trying to keep the annoyances to a minimum and to keep customers happy, and I think this is the answer.”

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