The way we shop and sell goods has significantly changed over the past several years. Everything has become more digital, and last year’s Black Friday sales made that clear. And while more consumers are embracing online shopping, many still enjoy the experience of going to traditional brick-and-mortar stores to purchase goods.
In physical shops, we can use our senses to test food for freshness, try on apparel and interact with live sales associates. With online shopping, we're limited to what we see on our mobile or desktop screens. However, retailers are realizing the value in creating an immersive experience for customers by combining the digital and physical worlds.
Forward-thinking businesses are using new channels to improve their customers’ shopping experiences, including 3-D printing to deliver hyperpersonalized goods, or allowing shoppers to interact with different products through holographic mirrors. Imagine "walking" through the aisles of your favorite store using augmented reality (AR) to "try on" clothing in a virtual representation of the big event you have planned next week. Imagine interacting with artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled chatbots that help you locate in-stock items at the nearest store. Case in point: Amazon.com has already pioneered the "Dash Button," so before long your pantry will actually order your products for you.
In their quest to strengthen customer loyalty, retailers are adopting data-intensive technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), AR, virtual reality (VR) and chatbots. However, some businesses are struggling with basic tech processes during high-transaction periods such as Black Friday. When the network crashes facilitating basic credit cards transactions, how can retailers successfully capitalize on these tools?
It Starts With the Network
Many of us don't realize (or consider) how important the network is to today’s shopping experience. None of these new applications would be possible without a powerful and reliable communication network. Traditional retailer networks are inflexible, comprised of a fixed set of connections that can’t accommodate swings in customer demand on their own. They’ve been built without an understanding of the types of services that would need support in today’s on-demand world, where users expect instant gratification and immediate delivery. Today’s networks require the intelligence and capacity to handle surging customer demands and new applications, such as those that create an immersive retail experience.
An example of this immersive experience is retailers integration of mobile point-of-sale (mPOS) systems. These are a game-changer for brands as retailers integrate them with mobile wallets to drastically cut the time it takes to process each transaction, enabling cashiers to serve more shoppers, reduce overall customer wait times and increase sales.
However, this type of digital acceleration requires retailers to invest in infrastructure and services to support these cloud-centric, on-demand applications, and make the immense volumes of consumer behavior data they're accumulating actionable. Central to capitalizing on this consumption change will be developing a strategy to prevent network outages and improve network response time.
AR and VR Critical to the Future of the E-Commerce Experience
For VR and AR technology — applications that are instrumental to the future of retail — significant network capacity is required to supply the necessary bandwidth and connectivity for these applications’ optimal operation. Even slight network latency can have an adverse effect on VR application operation, thus affecting the user experience. For online shopping, networks need intelligence to handle surging, often unexpected demands while still being responsive.
Seamlessly orchestrating immersive retail requires enabling the underlying communication network to support the massive amounts of data that's transferred from the cloud to physical stores with minimal delays. Automating the network so it can dynamically respond to end users is critical. Everything from advertising, order fulfillment, delivery and returns needs to be flawlessly orchestrated for optimal customer experience.
Pushing Retail to the Edge
Offering such a broad spectrum of technologies calls for a new networking paradigm, one that changes network capacity into capability and “infrastructure” into a programmable platform ready to handle on-demand applications. It’s impossible to predict the network impact of future applications. However, what is certain with today’s networks is that bandwidth demand at any location can fluctuate as new elements such as more advanced end-user devices and applications enter the market.
We can expect next-gen retail networks to employ edge computing initiatives at the network edge to reduce the latency that occurs when an end user accesses an application such as VR. Without networks that are scalable, open and programmable to meet the demands required by on-demand tools, retailers will not be able to deliver the seamless experiences their customers crave.
Businesses that use technology and data to create a more immersive, personalized digital shopping experience will reap rewards. And there’s no doubt that a key requirement of success will be a flexible, reactive communication network. Accessibility to convenience is what customers value, so retail will undoubtedly become increasingly rooted in digital experiences — and businesses must be ready to answer the call of the always-on, instant gratification economy.
Loudon Blair is the senior director of corporate strategy at Ciena, a network strategy and technology company.
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