Guest Column | August 11, 2020

COVID-19 Pushes Retail To The Edge

By Johan Pellicaan, Scale Computing

woman wearing mask covid

Certain states in the U.S. are beginning to see some form of normalcy with non-essential businesses reopening. Many welcome this after the U.S. GDP growth rate declined to -5 percent in Q1 2020 due to the pandemic. The reopening of non-essential businesses saw a national surge in retail spending and the outlook for the economy started to look less bleak. Many stores implemented COVID-19 safety precautions including required face masks and a six-feet social distancing order. These new rules could be the new normal in retail for the foreseeable future, and that would change the retail landscape as we know it.

Digital transformation has already been impacting almost every industry, with retail as no exception. Traditional retailers were already facing an existential threat from the plethora of online shopping brands that have transformed the consumer landscape, not aided by the pressures of the COVID-19 outbreak and ensuing lockdown measures. Consumers now expect a quick, easy, and convenient way of shopping, and online retailers have delivered. Aside from the inherent advantages of online versus traditional stores, internet retailers are effectively two steps ahead because of the very nature of their digital operations drives continual IT transformation.

Now with the added pressure of COVID-19, where contact and the number of people in-store will be limited, retailers with an online presence are not only able to cater to consumers’ differing preferences for how they want to shop, but they are much better placed to meet with societal restrictions around COVID-19 now and into the future. Right now is more important than ever for retailers to utilize technology to help drive engagement while keeping customers safe. So, what can retailers do to stay competitive?

Safe And Simple

Retailers need to have reliable, robust, and scalable IT systems in place to make sure the retail experience runs smoothly. For instance, in peak sales, the last thing that retailers or their customers want is a disrupted service, so it’s important to have a modern and simplified platform that can reliably meet demand. In addition, due to the pandemic, most retailers are limiting the number of customers in their stores as well as limiting the amount of on-site staff to comply with local and federal rules, so any underpinning technology must be simple, easy to use and can be deployed remotely.

This is where edge technology can play a vital role for retailers. Not only can it solve many of their IT challenges, it also can enable retailers to evolve by using data for business intelligence. While online retailers naturally gain data insights, they don’t have as much opportunity to interact with customers as brick-and-mortar stores. With edge computing, traditional retailers can close the gap on their online rivals and turn their personal customer contact into a data-driven advantage.

For example, connected edge devices can report how many times customers enter a store, as well as what they looked at and for how long. While traditionally this will have helped boost sales, in our ‘new normal’ this also can act as a safety precaution to monitor the number of people in the store. It also becomes possible to track a customer’s journey throughout the store, to see the path they are most likely to take and what caught their attention. With this technology in place, businesses have the opportunity to substantially increase the efficiency of their stores’ floor layout.

While Keeping The Experience Engaging

Connected edge devices also can enhance the direct customer experience with the ability to confirm the availability of specific items in-store. Edge technology allows for personalized adverts and intelligent shelf labels, and also can be used to remove some of the more mundane daily tasks while improving accuracy, such as monitoring refrigerator and freezer temperatures to automatically adjust and preserve food. Furthermore, edge-enabled technologies such as smart mirrors, for example, where customers can virtually “try on” clothes, were once nothing more than a fun shopping experience. Now, they provide a route for necessary hygiene precautions to be met. 

However, all of these benefits need to be cost-effective and simple to manage. The current pandemic may continue to hurt the American economy, and retailers may not be able to provide the funds to implement new technologies. This is where edge computing comes in. Edge computing is a game-changing technology, and if it is implemented through an on-site, scalable, cost-effective, and easy-to-manage appliance, retailers can take full advantage of these benefits.

About The Author

Johan Pellicaan is Vice President & Managing Director at Scale Computing.