Guest Column | August 29, 2019

Intelligent Infrastructure: Why Being Connected Is Essential In Retail Environments

By Simon O'Hare, Curve IT

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It is no secret that bricks-and-mortar retailers are grappling with myriad challenges. High streets up and down the country are struggling, thanks to a toxic combination of high rents and rates, lower footfall as shopping moves online, and more general malaise when it comes to consumer spending. Brexit and wider political uncertainty rumble on, with the consequences for the retail industry still unclear, but likely to be turbulent. A judge has raised the probability of department store Debenhams going into administration as early as September, whilst Patisserie Valerie, LK Bennett, Select and Bathstore have been other high-profile industry casualties this year.

Meanwhile, the first quarter of this year recorded a 2.4 percent year on year fall in retail jobs, according to figures from the British Retail Consortium – largely thanks to an increase in ‘small format stores, with many larger stores closing’.

Yet the landscape is not all doom and gloom. The latest statistics from the Retail Sales Index suggest in the three months to June of this year, the quantity bought in the country’s retailers increased by 0.7 percent, with a year-on-year growth rate of 3.8 percent in June. Theoretically, the country could enter calmer political waters this autumn, with a knock-on positive effect on the retail sector if consumer confidence increases.

The only certainty, then, seems to be uncertainty. Retailers must compete in a hostile and fast-moving environment, amidst changing consumer habits and a broader sense of political and financial upheaval.

All of which begs the question – how can bricks-and-mortar retailers remain competitive in an era of dynamism, flux and uncertainty? One key factor is in-store digital innovation.

What Does In-Store Digital Innovation Look Like?

What do we mean by this? After all, it’s easy to see how retailers’ online operations can harness digital innovation; interesting mobile apps, creative digital advertising and new online payment options are all being embraced by businesses across the retail sector. But in-store innovation is more focused on things like window dressing and store layouts surely?

Not so. As retail customers become increasingly likely to carry highly powerful mobile devices running on high-speed and high-capacity 5G cellular networks, and as the expanding internet of Things (IoT) continues to drive innovations both in the home and in public spaces, so customers in retail stores are beginning to see intelligent and creative connected experiences as the norm, not a luxury extra.

At the most basic level, then, offering high-quality in-store WiFi means that retailers are responding to customer expectations and ensuring that the shopping experience doesn’t impede or frustrate shoppers who want to be able to browse the internet or access social media.

But that is just the beginning. On a more sophisticated level, in-store WiFi can form the foundation for an array of more innovative and creative experiences. Bespoke applications, potentially integrated with IoT sensors placed throughout the store, can open up a world of creative opportunities for forward-thinking retailers.

Imagine, for example, a customer in a fashion store walking past a mannequin, only to receive an alert on their phone telling them exactly which items said mannequin is wearing, how much they cost and where they are to be found. Or a customer in an interior design shop looking at tiles, who is then able to mock up a visual of them in situ in their own home, using a tailored mobile app. High quality in-store connectivity can do everything from offer cross-selling and upselling ideas, to allowing browsers to digitally try on an effort, or place an item of furniture in a representation of their home. The gamification possibilities are broad too, with savvy retailers looking for new opportunities to both build loyalty and extend the leisure possibilities of their stores.

Then there’s the back-office side of things to consider. High-speed wireless connectivity can power intelligent approaches to inventory management and checking on-shelf availability, automating manual processes and consolidating different sources of information to enable stores to run more efficiently. This improves working conditions for retail staff and allows them to be more customer-focused and more informative and responsive.

What Are The Foundations For Digital Innovation?

Getting this right, however, requires a considered and careful approach to in-store infrastructure. Get that wrong and the whole endeavour can be prohibitively expensive or complex.

But where to begin? Enterprise-grade WiFi solutions can be hugely effective – but very expensive, particularly for any organisation smaller than the biggest department stores and multinational retailers. But clearly technology aimed primarily at domestic deployments is not going to be powerful enough.

Cloud-based WiFi can offer a compromised route forward, whereby individual stores run on virtual private networks (VPNs) from a single centralised database. And, as with all cloud computing deployments, the benefits in terms of elastic scalability, flexibility and agility are substantial.

Above all, however, retailers need to take a strategic and highly tailored approach to rolling out network infrastructure. This means developing a network strategy for all stores, individually and as a cohesive whole. It means undertaking bandwidth modelling, to establish those stores’ requirements today but also in the future, should new innovations be made in customer-facing applications.

Ultimately, retailers need to view robust and reliable digital connectivity as a vitally important part of their infrastructure – as critical as their utilities and energy services, or their security. They need to take a strategic and long-term approach to implementing digital connectivity and see it as the foundation not just for core back office functions, but also for more engaging, innovative and creative customer experiences – which could ultimately mean a greater level of competitiveness in today’s challenging retail environment.

About The Author

Simon runs Curve IT, who are a Brighton based networking and connectivity specialist, bringing WiFi to numerous structures (British Airways i360 Tower), pop-up events (Brighton Fringe) and complete converged networks to many new build properties in London thanks to a recent partnership with Essential Living.