The next-generation networks driving the connected retail revolution

Woman placing a customer order in a shop
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Once the preserve of those elusive ‘digitally-native’ enterprises, digital transformation strategies are now common fare across industries and business of all sizes. Most share the same goal: to quickly scale technology, increase agility and improve customer experience so they’re well-placed to take advantage of emerging growth opportunities. Countless different frameworks and roadmaps now exist, but a key determining factor in business’ success or failure - one that’s often forgotten - is whether they can effectively transform their networks.

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Chris Chrisou is Director of Engineering at Exponential-e.

New forms of network infrastructure and software are constantly emerging, making it tricky to keep track of the best solution for specific industries. The retail space in particular faces relentless pressure to sustain the pace of change and continue delivering great customer experiences. That’s why their network branches need to support intricate applications that help network engineers manage specific components of the network, putting significant pressure on IT.

Two technologies in particular, SD-WAN and 5G, promise to change the game beyond all recognition, and help retailers implement more resilient, agile, secure and compliant IT operations, and here I’m going to explain why.

The complexity of the retail network landscape

Customer experience rightly remains the main priority for retailers, even as consumer habits change post-pandemic. Digitally-native experiences are now the name of the game, whether shopping at home or in-store. In-store use of mobile devices and apps for example is now commonplace, meaning networks need to support a huge range of store functions: from Wi-Fi connectivity and video and analytics systems, digital signage, IoT devices, AR/VR, self-service kiosks and more. All form part of that experience, and are a crucial part of helping retailers digitally optimize and enhance their operations.

Future-proofing network infrastructure is essential to coping with these demands, and it’s a big reason why 5G technology is drawing such excitement. It has the power to connect things everywhere, reliably, without lag, enabling retailers’ IT departments to measure, understand and manage things in real time.

That makes it a big game-changer for those retailers investing in the connected shopping experience. Not only can they create a platform for internal customers to automate a lot of their operations, but they can also dedicate more valuable time to consumer in-store as a result. IoT devices, for example, promise to help retailers automatically monitor stocks levels and support with surveillance. Seamless connectivity, meanwhile, should allow staff to monitor related reports and analytics on their phones and be made aware of any issues imminently, while overseeing the retail floor and tending to customers’ queries. As well as its myriad consumer benefits, which I’ll go into later, it promises to free up staff to invest more time in making shoppers’ visits memorable, and less sitting at a monitor.

Increasing agility in network management

This all sounds wonderful, but creating a ‘connectivity’ ecosystem that helps users connect to and manage their applications anytime, from anywhere and from any device, is complex. It’s why modern network infrastructures are being specifically designed to help automate and streamline the demand that this multitude of devices places on networks. Previously if a floor manager needed access to video surveillance, but there was a concurrent increase in network traffic due to an application update on POS systems slowing down overall access, it would be nigh on impossible to provision and run the surveillance app in real-time. Adaptive network infrastructures will make it easier for IT teams to balance network distribution between connected devices, and in turn help telecom networks become easier to manage by broadening visibility across processes and increasing performance.

Customers now expect new ways of shopping, and delivering consistently impressive customer experiences is critical to assuring their loyalty. Retailers, therefore, need to invest in technologies that provide the flexibility needed to help configure networks, scale, increase bandwidth and control cloud services, so they can deploy technologies that streamline day to day operations. One example of such technology is SD-WAN.

Wide Area Network (WAN) technologies have been around for more than two decades, but the Software-Defined Area Network, or SD-WAN, is vital for businesses adopting SaaS and Cloud services. It offers lower costs, increased bandwidth and network availability, higher application performance and easier network management for retailers with multiple online applications, cloud platforms and sites, all of which are essential in delivering seamless operations and customer experience. It also allows networks to adapt to the needs of the company, including when it comes to security, by automatically extending safety policies across aspects of network infrastructure as and when required.

Shaping the future with the power of 5G

As mentioned, 5G technology is set to be a major disruptor in the retail space. We know it promises faster mission-critical communications and optimized connectivity. But how will it transform the shopper experience itself?

The speed and capacity it brings will play an integral part in helping retailers provide a convenient, immersive, customer experience, by supporting applications such as facial recognition, helping lure shoppers away from online shopping. The potential of IoT applications are numerous too, with automatic people counters already proving popular, for instance. But if we are to increase the in-store deployment of these applications, the right network infrastructure needs to be in place to ensure their smooth operation with minimal disruption.

The same goes for more futuristic applications using 5G technology, including AR and VR technology. AR promises to allow customers who couldn’t travel to a physical store to gain access to a virtual version of the store, where they can view all the products, but it relies on being able to take advantage of all the characteristics of 5G, such as the low latency and faster speeds.

Harmonizing agility and power

We mustn’t forget that the number one priority is and will always be the quality perceived by customer, whether they be internal or external. Next-generation network infrastructures are here to help enhance customer support and experiences.

Building a more resilient network landscape, with the right technologies to support it, will allow retailers to greatly enhance their entire offering to customers. Adopting technologies such as SD-WAN and 5G will allow them to become more agile and flexible in their IT while increasing efficiency across the whole retail ecosystem, delivering better digital experiences and helping them stand out because of, not despite technological transformation.

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Chris Chrisou is Director of Engineering at Exponential-e.