Rent-a-Center CIO Opts for All-Wireless Store Systems

With almost 3,000 stores in all 50 states, the Rent-A-Center retail chain needs to be able to expand quickly and easily.

But its business model allows customers to rent and return merchandise with little notice, forcing store layouts to be flexible. What if 30 customers return mattresses to the same store tomorrow?

Tony Fuller, the CIO for the $2.3 billion retailer, knew that he needed store systems that were consistent —and therefore replicable—and as flexible as possible. He delivered an all-wireless in-store system.

”We have such small stores (about 4,500 square feet) and we have so much merchandise coming in and out. The dynamics of the showroom floor changes from day to day,” Fuller said. “We have this hiring kiosk in the front of the store. A wireless networks lets us put it wherever it’s convenient on any given day.”

The chain wanted to upgrade POS systems but “it didn’t make sense to retrofit them with CAT5 (cabling). With wireless, within minutes, they’d be ready to go,” Fuller said. “To wire 3,000 stores really wasn’t an option.”

One “big concern” was security of the wireless network. “One thing we required for our overall VPN: encryption had to be hardware-driven. We did the same thing with all of the wireless terminals,” the CIO said. “They were encrypted from each of the wireless terminals back to the access point. It’s a mini VPN tunnel.”

Still, Fuller admits that a wireless network can’t be made impregnable. “There is no way to make a wireless network invisible to the world,” he said. “As much as we’d like to, you just can’t do it.”

Lance Wilson, the director of wireless research for ABI Research, said there aren’t that many retailers who have gone all wireless, but the attraction to do so is compelling.

The number of retailers having gone all wireless is “still relatively small” but it’s not so unusual in Europe and “it’s starting to be proliferated in the U.S. as the ancillary systems go wireless. The likelihood of (existing POS systems from major retailers) being replaced by wireless is much more likely today than it was.”

Greg Buzek, the president of the IHL consulting group, agrees with Fuller’s position that encrypted security—done properly—should be sufficient.

A wireless POS setup with strong encryption “is a viable approach if they’re using 64-bit encryption. That’s pretty strong. 128-bit would be tougher,” Buzek said. “Somebody could sniff the network if they were sitting outside for awhile, but the risk of that happening isn’t much greater than the risk of someone going in through a wired network.”

Fuller declined to specify the level of encryption his wireless networks will be using.

“Everyone going wireless is using very strong encryption. There have been too many lawsuits. Wireless with strong encryption is a major trend out there,” Buzek said. “The bigger issue is how common wireless POS is becoming. Retailers are doing it because they don’t have to pull wires or they want to be able to put out more registers on a cart when they’re busy. Instead of power, they’re using batteries so they can roll out extra lanes when needed. Target has been doing that.”

“They go wireless because they want to add lanes but would have to dig up floors and run conduit if they didn’t do wireless,” Buzek said. “And a lot of people are also using wireless as a backup in case the LAN goes down.”

Rent-A-Center’s IT mix includes HP and Compaq servers running HP-UX and managing a 12-TByte data warehouse with Oracle on the backend and Business Objects on the frontend (for predictive analysis).

Other parts of the network run on a Microsoft Windows backbone and Lawson for financial software. The stores are running SCO Unix with POS units from High Touch.

The CIO expressed some concerns about the long-term viability of SCO, but said that he wasn’t worried.

Check out’s for the latest news, views and analysis on technology’s impact on retail.

First, the units require so little support from SCO (“we don’t require a lot of direct support and in fact it’s been several months since we’ve had to initiate such contact”) that he expects to have several months to make a seamless transition.

Next page: Ensuring a Smooth (Potential) Migration.

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