Why Retail Networks Need Unprecedented Network Resilience and Control
In years past, the word “on-demand” has been used to describe videos or streaming services. However, I believe that “on-demand” can now be used to describe the expectations of today’s consumer. Customers now want a shopping experience that's always on, responds in real time, and gives the most up-to-date information. This has created a scenario in which all parts of a retail operation — from inventory, to point of sale (POS), to delivery and beyond — can no longer exist in silos and must be connected.
Consequently, there’s now a greater dependency on Internet of Things (IoT) devices throughout a retail operation, thereby creating the need for strong connectivity. Moreover, this strong connection can only be powered by one thing: a resilient, secure and easy-to-manage network.
A New Customer Experience
Although much of the world is two years to three years removed from the height of the pandemic, the shopping choices that customers have come to expect, and now enjoy, are still widely available. This includes options such as curbside pickup or the ability to buy an item online and pick it up in-store. Another practice that's still in effect is the last-mile delivery service which allows shoppers to often purchase an item — e.g., groceries, household items, or even electronics — and have it delivered that same day.
Each of these options are only possible when a retail store has a comprehensive and real-time inventory system. With an unprecedented amount of consumers shopping online, there’s a growing customer expectation that the information they see about product availability is current and correct. The shopping experience in stores is also evolving. There are a growing number of self-serve kiosks in grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, department stores, and even clothing stores. Department stores are also enhancing the in-store shopping experience with digital signage that highlights the latest deals and virtual assistants that can aid in purchase decisions.
For many of these retail operations, operating in the background is some sort of artificial intelligence technology. For example, in inventory, some AI and machine learning solutions learn customers’ shopping patterns and suggest which items the store should have in stock ahead of a certain shopping season. When it comes to digital signage, there are some stores that use AI to predict where in the store certain digital advertisements will have a higher conversion rate. For online shopping, certain retailers are able to provide detailed suggestions to customers based on what they like. These examples show the need for a network that can evolve to meet this new retail landscape.
A Resilient Network
With this much dependence on connectivity, retailers that trust only a sole, hardwired link will be open to network failure and lack the agility necessary to support these new customers demands. For many retail stores the answer begins with wireless WAN (WWAN) — or the use of public or private cellular routers or adapters as WAN infrastructure — to create a foundation for resiliency.
According to the IDC, almost one in three retailers say they're investing in enhanced connectivity and edge solutions to power a better employee and customer experience. This investment is likely due to the scalability and flexibility that WWAN provides. For years, WWAN has been used as a failover connection. However, from inventory to POS, today’s retailers can find multiple uses for resilient WWAN.
Let’s take another look at inventory. For many retailers, “just-in-time" inventory, or JIT, is the inventory method of choice. By definition, this allows retailers to only receive inventory as needed. This creates a smaller margin for error within inventory processes and, therefore, any interruptions to that process can have an immediate effect on retail operations the following day.
In many cases, IoT devices and scanners are the tools that help streamline inventory processes. A strategic WWAN approach, providing connectivity at the edge of a warehouse or store, will allow employees to operate necessary inventory devices such as scanners, sensors and other machinery with dedicated bandwidth to promote that uptime.
This same approach can be necessary as you move from a warehouse or back of the store to the front of the store. Resilient connectivity at the network edge can ensure that everything from POS systems, digital signage and cameras aren’t affected by network downtime. Cameras in particular are an important part of providing the new customer experience. In many cases, camera usage extends beyond security measures. The understanding of shopper traffic patterns, the adequate distribution of staff, and even the influence of purchases are all camera use cases enabled through real-time video feeds from the camera. Any interruption in feeds could delay a store’s ability to provide a proper customer, or even employee, experience.
In addition to network resilience, network security also materializes as a benefit of a wireless WAN approach. With a wireless WAN approach, retailers can leverage certain zero-trust capabilities to segment which networks in the store, and who in the store, has access to certain information. This adds a vital level of security to the on-demand customer experience.
As an alternative to WWAN, certain retailers have also begun taking advantage of private cellular networks (PCN) in their approach to network connectivity. A PCN can extend from thousands to hundreds of thousands of feet to create a dedicated, secure area of connectivity. This can be so valuable if stores want to provide resilient connectivity to multiple parts of their inventory operation. In the JIT example above, it’s important to remember that while the store drives demand, delivery to the store doesn’t happen if the inventory isn’t available at the warehouse.
Making sure demand is met is possible through a fully connected warehouse that can accurately communicate and receive inventory needs in real time. With a private network, retail outfits have more ownership over the network that will drive everything from inventory requests, item tracking, and other warehouse logistics. This dedicated bandwidth can, again, help with cameras at a warehouse that are important for loss prevention and worker safety.
BOPIS and curbside pickup saw great success in supporting the retail experience during COVID. In fact, consumers loved it so much that retailers have had to learn to support this on their network permanently. What was meant to be a temporary “band-aid” to support pandemic shopping scenarios has now permanently extended the edge of the network out to parking lots and temporary ”pop-up” locations. Retailers are looking at PCNs as a holistic approach to meet demands both inside and outside of the store to deliver a streamlined and uninterrupted experience for their customers
In addition to the shopping and inventory experience, a WWAN or private network approach is also helpful for the IT staff experience. While scalability and security are two major benefits of WWAN or private networks, ease of deployment and management are also two major benefits. Depending on the retail store, there may not be an extensive IT department in house. Also, since retail is a fast-moving business, the process behind network setup needs to be as easy and quick as possible. The right WWAN or private network solution will allow IT personnel to streamline network setup — with the right scale and security policies — and make it easy to adjust that network when necessary.
A Network That Can Grow With Customer Expectations
As the appetite of today’s customer grows, retailers will have to lean more into networks that can scale at the pace of consumer demand. A strong network can also power agility to meet customers at the additional touchpoints where they want their shopping experience — e.g., in-store, curbside, or at home. This means a retail experience that's always on, always fast, and always accurate. Also, with the growing additions of IoT and AI to retail infrastructure, much of operations will increasingly become automated — not to mention sensitive customer information has the potential to travel at an unprecedented speed and scale.
In 2024, the answer to today’s customer experience will be a WWAN or private network approach. It will act as the foundation for a network that's secure, scalable and — with the right solution — easy to manage and deploy.
Dee Dee Pare is a senior product marketing manager at Cradlepoint, a company that develops cloud-managed wireless edge networking equipment.
Related story: 5G IoT, Edge Computing and their Vital Role in Retail
Dee Dee Paré is a Senior Product Marketing Manager for Cradlepoint. During her 20 years in networking, Dee Dee has had a passion for marketing leading-edge technology solutions that make a difference in the outcomes for enterprise IT customers. Notable technologies that she has become a subject matter expert as a part of strategizing, messaging and introducing to the market include 5G/LTE Wireless WAN, enterprise routing, edge compute, network security, ZTNA, and Internet of Things (IoT). Prior to Cradlepoint, she held similar roles for Cisco and Forescout Technologies. Dee Dee is based in Silicon Valley, California.