COVID-19 has flipped the retail sector upside down. Grocery stores and pharmacies are more critical than ever, but many other “nonessential” retailers are in a trickier position. They either have to lean into e-commerce or dramatically alter their brick-and-mortar stores to support social distancing and contactless shopping through curbside pickup; buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS); and robotics. While major brands like CVS and Walmart have been able to offer tech-driven options, many smaller traditional retailers don’t have the resources and infrastructure to make these pivots. This has exposed a retail digital divide.
The good news is small retailers can overcome this divide. And no, it’s not about spending piles of money on robots and virtual reality (VR) headsets. It will depend on strategic use of existing technology, making very focused investments, and finding new, creative ways to change the customer experience. The tech investments that small retailers make now can save money long term, increase overall efficiency, and help bring consumers back to physical stores safely.
Here are three ways small retailers can mitigate the digital divide.
Lean Into Mobile
Mobile technology plays an increasingly critical role in merging online and offline retail experiences. To ensure a seamless mobile connection, smaller retailers must prioritize having reliable, high-speed internet access in their stores. In-store Wi-Fi is no longer a “nice to have” — it’s a strategic imperative. Consumers are expecting retailers to provide an integrated mobile technology and in-store shopping experience, or else they will shop elsewhere. Secure Wi-Fi will ensure small retailers can offer a connected, personalized experience at every touchpoint in the customer’s journey.
Reliable Wi-Fi allows consumers to use mobile devices to read product information, compare prices, and access the brand’s mobile app while in-store. It also gives customers a secure way to use mobile devices for automated checkouts, which can help small retailers save money, reduce the time spent at checkout, and keep customers safe. The ability to support mobile devices is key in helping small retailers compete with larger brands, and in-store Wi-Fi is the enabler. Small retailers that invest in Wi-Fi will also be able to better analyze customer data to improve overall efficiency, increase sales, and retain customers.
Use the Data You Have in Front of You
Data analytics is a key piece to bridging the digital divide, but historically retailers haven't used it effectively to drive business decisions. Many lack time, staff and funds to track, analyze and utilize it. Data is the currency that will allow small retailers to make more efficient decisions, better understand consumer needs, and track customer shopping patterns over time. And much of small retailers' most valuable data is right in front of them — it lies in their existing IT infrastructure.
The key to making the most out of that data is the cloud, which is one critical investment that will go a long way with small retailers. Additionally, there are subscription options, which can make cloud less of a significant upfront investment for small retailers and shift this expense from a capital one to an operational one. Cloud-based infrastructure will simplify network tasks and maintenance, save money in the long term, and allow retailers to easily collect and analyze large data sets. They can then derive insights to enhance in-store customer engagement, create value-added experiences, and, most importantly, maintain customer health and safety demands.
Small retailers that invest in cloud-based infrastructure benefit from better efficiencies, increased sales, and inventory optimization in order to provide a better in-store customer experience. Cloud enables small retailers to easily manage the business from a bird’s-eye view, including tracking store workflows, real-time inventory views, and order fulfillments.
Win Customers Back With Personalized Experiences
The greatest challenge with data isn’t typically collecting it, it’s using it. Once retailers have a cloud-based infrastructure in place, the key is feeding that data into artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML) tools to create personalized experiences and predict future spending trends. By using AI and ML, smaller retailers can learn more about their customers, which will drive better experiences and greater brand loyalty.
Additionally, predictive analytics allows stores to sift data and build models that can predict consumers’ potential behaviors and product interests. These analytics can also help automate daily processes, improve price optimization, predict inventory needs, and even drive new product developments. All of these capabilities can be part of the cloud-based infrastructure, which can help small retailers stay within budget.
COVID-19 radically altered the entire retail sector, but with some key technology investments, every store, small or large, can adapt their operations to meet the demands of today’s consumers.
Related story: 5 Must-Have Post-Pandemic Retail Technologies
Nora Guzman is the Vice President of Product Marketing at Extreme Networks, a global networking company that provides critical technology and connectivity to retailers like Kroger and Savers. In her role, she oversees the Product, Competitive, and Content Marketing functions.