William Ashley hopes for happily ever after with  registry tools

Canada’s largest wedding registry service has wedded Wi-Fi and RFID technology so in-store shoppers can update their online wish lists in near-real time.

William Ashley’s “Wish Pad” is a clipboard that holds a customized Nokia 770 handheld Internet tablet and a paper notepad with an RFID chip underneath it. Gift items on the store shelves bear a four-letter quick code. When a couple sees something they like, they enter the quick code; a text-to-speech program describes the item for confirmation, then the item is added to the registry list.

“It’s definitely had a wonderful response,” said Jackie Chiesa, general manager of the downtown Toronto store. It makes the registry more accessible, she said, but it doesn’t make it an automated service — couples still consult with an advisor, usually for about 45 minutes, to make fundamental flatware and table setting decisions.

And since it has full Internet functionality, Chiesa said, it’s popular with the male half of the couples who often “have been dragged along and really don’t want to be there.” They can check e-mail and surf the Internet. On any given Saturday, 12 to 14 of the units are out on the floor with shoppers.

There’s also a smaller Mississauga, Ont., location with three Wish Pads.

Gifts selected appear in the couple’s online registry in about three to five minutes. People have grown accustomed to that kind of instantaneous service in the Internet age, said Norm Tomlins, the store’s IT manager.

That near-real-time service is available courtesy of a custom Linux-based Python Web server written for the tablet. It’s got stripped down functionality — no PHP services and the like — in order to run on the 64MB of RAM available on the Nokia. Though the interface is largely self-explanatory, a Flash tutorial takes shoppers through the process of using the unit.

When the couple enters the quick code of a gift item, the Web server pushes the order out over the Wi-Fi connection to an Access database. The back-end UNIX system, running SKU Lite, pulls the update over an OBC layer. It’s possible that someone could be shopping for the couple in the online registry and see near-immediate updates to the list.

“It was pretty straightforward to get the backend to work with it,” Tomlins said.

Thanks to the onboard Web server, updates can be FTPed to the 20 Wish Pads. Data on almost 300,000 SKUs is stored on a 1 GB RS MMC (reduced size multimedia card). At worst, said Tomlins, the cards can be quickly updated in a reader if for some reason an FTP update isn’t possible.

The RFID chip comes into play when the customers are out on the floor. There’s an option on the registry interface to page your consultant. Clicking the box sends a page, and triangulation determines the customer’s location on the 24,000-square-foot shop floor and displays it on the consultant’s computer.

Tomlins did all the development in-house, and is already contemplating new interactive features. “Where am I?” and “Explore Department” functions are under development. Tomlins said that instant messaging technology is a natural upgrade. Units with cameras will be coming soon, allowing shoppers to consult online with friends and family.

Tomlins said he anticipates the units will last about one and a half years before they have to be replaced.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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