Tim Markley recently ordered three Apple (AAPL) iPads for his warehouse. He put them on the forklift and the carts that workers push down aisles while they pull items off the shelves to fill orders. Previously, employees would carry lists (on paper) and once they completed an order they'd find a computer on the 20,000-square-foot warehouse floor to update the inventory database. That meant a lot of time spent walking around looking for a computer, then entering data—not filling orders. "In a warehouse, your travel time to pick orders is 50 percent of an employee's time," says Markley, president of Elkhart (Ind.)-based Markley Enterprise, a 75-person firm that designs marketing displays for stores and trade shows. "We put pedometers on our people and we actually saw steps decrease by 30 percent with the iPad," he says. Another benefit: Markley now e-mails orders to each iPad, eliminating the need for paper.
Markley isn't the only small business owner to embrace the iPad. Others have begun experimenting with the lightweight tablet computer, using it to outfit delivery staff and salespeople, as well as to dramatically reduce the amount of paper used. At the Rydges Hotel in Sydney, Australia, diners are handed iPads instead of more traditional menus. In New York City, De Berardinis Salon gives clients iPads rather than magazines to keep them entertained during beauty treatments.
As a device to cut down on paper costs, there's certainly a large market for the iPad. In the U.S., companies spent about $8 billion on paper in 2007, not counting costs for ink or toner, according to John Maine, an analyst with RISI, which tracks the global forest products industry. Copier giant Xerox (XRX) estimated that for every dollar spent on printing documents, companies pay an additional $6 in handling and distribution costs.
No wonder going paperless can save a small company a small fortune—if they use a lot of paper. Arhaus Furniture estimates it will save $100,000 in paper costs annually when it gives its 50 drivers iPads to use when delivering furniture from its stores. Arhaus uses software from TOA Technologies to track drivers on their routes and to predict within a one-hour window when they will arrive at a customer's home. TOA is now creating an iPad app for Arhaus.
"The unique features of the iPad are the ability to use the built-in GPS function and the ability to collect electronic signatures," says Irad Carmi, co-founder of TOA Technologies, adding that the size of the device is just right for drivers to carry. TOA may add a piece to the app that lets Arhaus drivers show customers photos from the catalog so they can sell accessories during the delivery process. Arhaus wants to have its drivers equipped with iPads in time for the holiday season.
Some small business owners say that the combination of the device's ease of use, always-on capabilities, and large screen size could help them improve business processes. That is, if there's an app—or someone willing to write one—that will let them streamline current operations.
"In the long term, it [the success of the iPad as a small business tool] is going to be very dependent on the availability of apps," says Dan Shey, an analyst with ABI Research, which forecasts trends in communications and emerging technology. "Some of these devices are going to be designed so they are specific to a worker's task, almost like an appliance," he adds.
To make the iPad work, Markley needed an application that would properly display data from an online order-management service on the iPad's large screen. He didn't want to create his own app, so after a thorough search of Apple's App Store he finally found one for $1.99 written by a Japanese developer. "For years, we've used Apple products and that's put us at a disadvantage because most [business software] is written for PCs," says Markley. The iPad may be changing that.