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Apple enlists iPads for retail signage

Apple starts rolling out a new system that makes use of iPads in its retail stores to display information about nearby products, taking the place of printed materials.

An iPad being used to help sell a MacBook Air in an Apple retail store.
An iPad being used to help sell a MacBook Air in an Apple retail store.
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Confirming reports from earlier this week, Apple is moving forward on plans to put iPads to work in its retail stores, not just as display models, but as tools to sell its other products.

In Australia and other countries, where it's already Sunday, Apple stores have opened with a new setup that makes use of iPads as informational tools to customers around the store, taking the place of the paper-based informational signs next to the company's products.

As blog Mac Prices Australia has photographed at a local store, and picked up by Macstories, the encased iPads display information about nearby products such as prices and configurations to let customers compare and customize models. There's also the option to page a retail employee to come over to provide assistance.

The new configuration gives Apple quite a bit of leeway as far as keeping information updated, no matter what product is nearby. It's also got the potential to let stores run with less staff on the floor, as an employee can be called to answer questions whenever customers alert the company through the app that's running on the iPads.

Apple's plans to give its stores an iPad-centric digital revamp were unearthed earlier this week with multiple reports. Boy Genius Report posted a story earlier this week noting that Apple store employees could not take off time during the weekend and were required to attend a training session on Sunday. Following that, Apple Insider snagged photos of a stack of iPads delivered to one Apple store to be used on the sales floor. 9to5mac on Friday briefly posted screenshots of an app that was to be used by employees to run transactions, though those photos were removed shortly thereafter at Apple's request.

The changes come just a few days after the 10th anniversary of Apple's retail stores. Apple has since gone on to open more than 320 locations around the world, with most of those in the U.S. In its most recent quarterly earnings call and in briefings from the past several years, the company has said that around half of Mac buyers at the company's retail stores are buying a Mac machine for the first time.

Here's a video of what the new system looks like in stores next to various products, via Macotakara:

Update at 12 p.m. on 5/22: To add a few more details about Apple's efforts, the retail employees we talked to are calling the iPad displays "Smart Signs." They're set up around every Apple product in the store and have custom software depending on the product. On the iPhone, for instance, you can select your carrier, and rate plan to see what the cost of ownership is for the device. And on computers you can compare multiple models and dig into what various features do, all before ever having to talk to a specialist.

If you do need help, the new system is set up to page employees using the existing iPod Touch-based mobile checkout units. Contrary to reports from earlier this week, Apple was not yet in the process of switching out those with iPads.

When a customer requests to see a product specialist, employees see it as a new item in the store's queue. If they claim it, the iPad next to the product will provide the customer with the name of the employee who is on the way, while providing that employee with a map of the store and the customer's location.

As for the Smart Sign units, they're not everywhere just yet. Apple continues to use its previous, paper displays next to other products, like headphones and speaker docks.

For more shots of the units, take a look at CNET's gallery.