The optics on the health of the retail industry have been gloomy for some time now, with one old-school brand after another biting the dust on a regular basis, according to major headlines. More often than not, the blame lands on online brands and big-box giants like Amazon.com or Walmart, which are relatively easy targets when you consider their ability to excel at e-commerce at the expense of traditional brick-and-mortar.
In truth, almost 90 percent of retail transactions still take place in-store, with two-thirds of online shoppers still visiting a physical store before they make a final purchase. This indicates that brick-and-mortar retail isn’t on its last legs so much as retail is turning into an omnichannel vertical, where physical and digital channels need each other to flourish.
Consumer tastes have also been fine-tuned by social media to the point that these platforms are themselves now huge markets helping to both supplement (and even supplant) the brick-and-mortar experience. Now, the modern consumer is armed with a bevy of connected devices that allow them to access all the services and goods they need with just a few taps of a screen. By having everything — from social interactions to entertainment to medical advice — so readily available, convincing consumers to make the trip to physical storefronts requires more than just good bargains.
Now, retailers need to employ a wealth of technology that gives visitors a more meaningful and interactive experience with the brand. This means that physical stores are no longer just sales centers, but rather areas for exploration and interaction with the brand that holds equal weight with digital channels in improving bottom lines. This requires retailers to incorporate a bevy of physical and virtual touchpoints within stores to ensure this all comes together seamlessly.
What do these technologies look like, and how can teams support them?
Intelligent beacon and sensor technology that similarly underlies Internet of Things (IoT) tools in the manufacturing space can help teams set up a virtual geofence around their physical stores. When potential shoppers — identified by their relationships with the brand through digital channels, for instance — are within the geofence, they're alerted on their phones to tailored offers. This requires coordination between a slew of different stakeholders, from corporate data centers that store customer profiles, to third-party marketing vendors, to salespeople at the store location.
While allowing shoppers to interact with competitors on their phones while in-store may seem counterintuitive, some consumers might be turned off if the store won’t provide connectivity or leave the store in an effort to find it. In-store Wi-Fi also is an opportunity for teams to monitor customer habits when they use the network to help glean insights about competitors and tailor promotions accordingly.
In-Store Interactive Tech
Brands have been experimenting with lots of digital experiences to blend the virtual and physical channels. These include “virtual dressing rooms” that allows shoppers to “try on” apparel using digital mirrors. This technology helps solve long-standing issues like dressing room abandonment, when shoppers who don’t find what they’re looking for after their first visit to the fitting area don’t bother returning for round two. This is all facilitated by open lines of connectivity between store location inventory lists, online inventory, customer profiles, and applications leveraged by staff in-store as well as the brand’s warehouse network.
In the modern store, staff needs to be armed with their own mobile devices to help streamline customer service. This involves not only being able to quickly access back-of-house inventory figures, but also speeding up the checkout process. For this to succeed, each store needs secure and reliable connectivity into the brand’s WAN as well as connectivity to app providers that facilitate some of the payment programs.
All of these “front of house” advancements will likely require retailers to take an extensive look at their back-office systems. Retail networks are extensive, especially for brands that have a large, established footprint of physical locations. With a deluge of connected tech now within retail IT’s purview, they will need comprehensive visibility like never before to make sure the lights stay on.
At the end of the day, and despite what headlines may indicate, the retail sector is still only on the cusp of true digital transformation. By firming up their network infrastructure today — and employing comprehensive network performance monitoring throughout any network reorganization — teams can more quickly adapt to the changes that haven’t even been dreamed up yet.
Adam Edwards is chief customer officer at AppNeta, an end user experience and network performance monitoring solution delivered as a SaaS application.