Retail Innovation Requires a New Approach to Networking
“Innovate or die!” is a mantra known to many industries, but is particularly relevant to today’s retailers. Recent headlines seem to highlight those that have failed to embrace innovation and have suffered the consequences — store closures, lost customers, bankruptcy filings.
The truth is, however, that many have enthusiastically embraced the call for digital transformation, from robust omnichannel analytics systems that provide a 360-degree understanding of customers and real-time tracking systems that deliver up-to-the-minute inventory and shipment information, to smart dressing rooms, near-field communications and frictionless payment systems.
While considerable advancements have been made to better understand and engage retail shoppers, the underlying network infrastructure that support these innovations don't always receive the same level of attention. In a physical retail store, the network is still usually comprised of a small server room and point-of-sale systems with individual backup power systems attached. However, as more of the technology — and thus data processing — will happen at these stores and other edge locations in coming years, the more vital it is that the network infrastructure can support it. When the network can’t, the downtime can be costly, not only because it slows or disables checkout processes, but also because it can alienate customers and put security at risk. A new approach to networking, one that adds both resilience and central management, is needed to succeed in today’s retail environment.
Network resilience refers to the ability to withstand and recover from a disruption of service. Viewed as a competitive advantage for organizations across a variety of verticals, the greater a company’s network resilience, the more likely the network will be able to bounce back quickly in a failure, prevent data losses, and minimize damage, while allowing for business continuity. Having a resilient network is as essential now as having a credit card processing system in the 90s or a website in the 2000s.
Resilience, however, cannot start at individual store locations. Retail systems must now be treated as an entire infrastructure rather than just a collection of individual stores, and must be centrally managed with minimum need for truck rolls. The key to achieving this is to use out-of-band management solutions that allow operators and administrators to access, maintain and manage components without having to be at the physical store location.
With centralized management, the need for human intervention is minimized at the core and the edge because management is done from one place. IT staff can use remote software to ensure edge technology — from the POS system to personalization platforms — are up and running. When an issue does arise, it can be remediated almost immediately and without having to send a technician.
Many retailers haven’t historically considered resilience and centralized management when building their networks, in part because of high costs. Designing a resilient network can be expensive and time consuming, and must also include short- and long-term requirements. This forces IT leaders to think through both their immediate and ongoing needs not just as it relates to the tech stack in each store or distribution facility, but for the network that represents all edge environments collectively.
It's not a small task, but it is a valuable one. A resilient network protects retailers from millions of lost dollars in network outages alone. More importantly, it also maximizes investments in consumer-facing customer experience innovations. Critical to retailers differentiating themselves and capturing share of wallet, a resilient network ensures their networks are always up, running and being put to good use across the entire retail footprint.
Marcio Saito is chief technology officer of Opengear, a provider of network resilience solutions used by some of the world’s largest retail brands.