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Digital and In-Store Shopping is Colliding and Reliable Network Performance is at the Center

By Ricardo Belmar, Senior Director-Enterprise Product Marketing, InfoVista

Ricardo Belmar, Senior Director-Enterprise Product Marketing, InfoVista

Digital and in-store shopping experiences are on a collision course in the best way possible.

The move toward digital and online has transformed retail business models that have been in place for decades, with digital shopping experiences creating new potential to benefit both consumers and retailers online and in-store. Today, with the holiday shopping season upon us, there are many different ways brands can gain omnichannel access to customers that blend the physical and digital.

But, with that in mind, modern consumers expect a higher level of attention from the brands they shop with, from reliable in-store internet access to new digital experiences that help them make “smarter” purchases. Add to that an abundance of choices for where and how consumers can buy their goods, and today’s retail landscape really lets the shopper take the wheel.

The Omnichannel Experience Begins at Checkout

For shoppers making purchases at physical stores, the biggest pain point can be at checkout. When a customer is ready to complete a transaction but is greeted with a long line for the register, the allure of abandoning their goods altogether to find a store with a smaller line is overpowering. This common retailer challenge is only exacerbated by the recent EMV liability shift. As more chip-enabled cards reach customers, their promise of enhanced security comes at a price. Each card’s added layers of encryption slows down the checkout process and adds congestion to retailers’ network.

Rather than limiting all transactions to the main checkout counter, stores have started to arm employees with tablets that are equipped to handle debit or credit card purchases so a customer can bypass the checkout line completely and minimize normal checkout obstacles. But, in order for retailers to offer customers this time-saving perk, their wide-area network (WAN) connecting all of their retail locations must be up to par and able to accommodate whatever customers throw its way.

"To get a handle on age-old and next-generation in-store applications, retailers should consider an application-aware SD-WAN."

For example, customers are often equipped with their own mobile devices that they may use to comparison shop or even just check social media. If done on the store’s guest WiFi, this has the potential to crowd the store’s WAN, which could have a negative effect on the performance of business critical applications like those involved in point-of-sale (PoS) transactions.

Rather than discouraging consumers from using in-store WiFi networks, retailers need to embrace it, allowing shoppers to engage with the brand online, comparison shop or even just surf the web while walking the aisles. In fact, a recent study by Euclid Analytics found that 83 percent of consumers indicate their smartphones are central to their shopping experience. This is all part of nurturing the high-standards of service that customers expect, but it requires careful management of the store’s network traffic to prevent downtime.

Connectivity Can Enhance Far More than Just the Point of Sale

Improving the PoS by making it mobile is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to implementing a meaningful and effective omnichannel strategy that tackles customer needs and guides the buying process in creative ways. It’s also not the only technology that requires a lot of network bandwidth to implement.

One much-hyped new assisted selling function leverages in-store devices so store associates can engage with customers with more information on a piece of store inventory, including high-quality images, audio and video. This kind of “rich content” often has to travel from the data center, or a cloud server, across the WAN, over the store’s WiFi and onto the device, offering up plenty of opportunities for network congestion and delays. A delay of even five seconds may seem like an eternity and could cause a once-engaged shopper to walk away. A similar offering is the “endless aisle,” which gives retailers the ability to sell items to customers via an in-store digital display even if those items may not actually be in stock.

Brands are even able to entice customers walking by their physical stores using targeted, location-based services that communicate with shoppers’ smartphones and entice them with coupons, deals, and other special offers. Taking advantage of the IoT devices in every customer’s purse or pocket– smartphones–brands can drive more shoppers into the store.

In order for these blended physical and virtual environments to truly take hold, businesses need to ensure that high-speednetwork connectivity is consistent and reliable. If, for instance, the assisted selling platform can’t access stock from the backroom or warehouse in real time, the program is dead on arrival. The same rings true for location-based offerings, since stores will need to have active networks that are consistently keeping tabs on customers’ shopping habits and activities, all without sacrificing other business critical functions that rely on the network like PoS applications.

Embracing Reliable Network Connectivity

To get a handle on age-old and next-generation in-store applications, retailers should consider an application-aware SD-WAN that allow them to prioritize business critical applications’ access to bandwidth over guest Wi-Fi traffic, store Wi-Fi fixed devices and other network functions that are all competing for the retailer’s WAN and creating back-end IT complexity. The trick is finding a solution that can balance retailers’ ‘must have’ applications with the ‘nice to have’ applications in a way that will set them apart from the competition during the competitive holiday shopping season and beyond.

Meeting the customer on their terms allows retailersto establish relationships that last long after a transaction is completed. By properly balancing network demands with business objectives, complete access to a customer among physical, virtual and mobile environments can help to drive meaningful and long-lasting results that translate into higher holiday sales and conversion rates.

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