June 26, 2018
Smart Retail Requires Smart Infrastructure Choices
Upgrading your data center and WAN architectures can pay off big, especially during peak shopping periods.
What do Black Friday, PlayStation 5 and the newest iPhone have in common? They’re examples of events that drive a ton of traffic into stores — and onto the back-end IT systems of retailers. That flood of data can be a big problem or a big opportunity, depending on what you do before those events occur.
In a recent blog post, I explored how the Internet of Things gives retailers new ways to improve shopper experiences, increase sales and reduce operating expenses. Wayfinding tools, portable point-of-sale terminals, beacons that push e-coupons and other smart retail applications require fast, seamless in-store wireless LANs. But back-end infrastructure, such as data centers and WANs, is equally important.
SD-WANs and the Cloud Provide Flexibility and Scalability
Take, for example, a perennial complaint among customers and associates alike: transactions that take too long to process. An overloaded WLAN is sometimes the culprit, but just as often, the underlying cause is a clogged WAN or an undersized data center.
For the latter problem, a few solutions exist. One approach is to use the cloud to add processing power as needed, scaling up capacity for those big sales periods. These cloud resources can also support online transactions, making it less likely that customers will abandon their carts (both real and virtual) in frustration. These resources also ensure that inventory stays up to date, which prevents another customer annoyance: ordering a product online for immediate store pickup and arriving to find that it’s actually out of stock.
Another solution is to put more processing power at the network edge or the store itself. This strategy also can keep operations running if the WAN has an outage. Just make sure that security isn’t compromised in the process. Ideally, for example, you would not store credit card information in that mini data center. Instead, tokenize sensitive data to ensure that processing meets Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) compliance.
If the WAN is the bottleneck, consider upgrading to a software-defined network. SD-WANs use intelligent routing, path control and other techniques to prioritize certain traffic, such as customer transactions. They also provide more visibility than multiprotocol label-switching (MPLS). Another benefit is that SD-WANs make it easier to segment the network to protect sensitive data, such as credit card information.
Real-Time Data Adds Precision to Your Customer Messaging
A secondary payoff, albeit a big one, is that both of these solutions can support analytics strategies. Retailers that collect customer data can achieve valuable real-time insights, which can drive sales or salvage those that might have been lost to competitors. Consider the problem of showrooming, with shoppers browsing in store and then using their smartphones to find e-tailers that can beat the price.
With a properly configured SD-WAN and ample data center resources at the ready, retailers can identify shoppers who have downloaded their loyalty program app as soon as they walk in the door. With the WLAN and a customer-facing app pinpointing customers’ paths through the store, the retailer can also see where each shopper goes and, crucially, where they pause. Taking into account a shopper’s registered preferences and purchase history, the retailer can then push an e-coupon when the customer is literally in the right place at the right time.
This type of strategy, made possible by reliable back-end infrastructure, is a great example of how technology can turn a flood of data into actionable intelligence — something every retailer needs.