According to the latest ONS figures, the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on the physical retail sector has been mixed. Stores selling hardware, paints and glass, for example, saw a 13% increase in the value of retail sales compared to last year. Others have been hit particularly hard – with clothes store sales down by more than a quarter (26%) in the same time frame.
The forthcoming wave of vaccinations promises to restore the UK’s economy to a more stable position. Nonetheless, we must consider the possibility that changes in consumer behaviour may linger even when lockdowns and social distancing are a thing of the past. Will retailers experience a sudden spike in demand (thereby stretching staff and supply chains thin) post-lockdown or have customers been fully converted to shopping online?
Expect the unexpected, and plan for the worst
Regardless of which scenario emerges, the Internet of Things (IoT) is key to addressing the issues that lie ahead in the future of retail. Comprising a dynamic network of sensors, devices and equipment, the IoT makes it possible to view and interact with physical objects as easily as files and folders on a computer. In other words, the IoT creates a digital overlay that sits across the physical infrastructure of retail stores, effectively facilitating the agility of online shopping in a physical space.
It will require investment, but securing the future is a goal that pays dividends. Here we look at the solutions the IoT has to offer.
Solution A – Achieving efficiency along the entire supply chain
Preparing to mitigate the negative outcomes in this scenario requires retailers to take a hard look at the systems they have in place, identify areas in urgent need of greater efficiency, and implement new IoT tools to address them:
- Real-time supply chain – inventory sensors and POS data are integrated into a direct communication system with supply chain partners, triggering automated manufacturing and production systems and adjusting stock delivery schedules accordingly.
- Shop floor workforce optimisation – capacity sensors track the number and location of customers in-store, identifying potential bottlenecks and areas where staff should be on hand to lend help
- Robotic process automation (RPA) – from processing supplier deliveries to quarterly stock counts, RPA systems automate time-consuming tasks that happen behind the scenes, freeing up staff time for better workforce scheduling and more focus on customers.
Solution B – Bring in-store services online
Innovations such as live product tracking and same day delivery have recently tipped the customer experience race in online retailers’ favour. To attract new customers and retain their business, brick-and–mortar stores must emulate the dynamic, digital and personalised experience offered by their online counterparts:
- Interactive digital displays & kiosks – positioned at the store entry, customers can benefit from an optimised in-store journey and a highly personalised experience by viewing commonly bought items, their location within the store and in-the-moment marketing offers based on purchase history.
- Roaming POS – queuing is eliminated as tablets carried by staff process customer payments anywhere in the store. In addition, RFID scanners built into trolleys and baskets can total large volume purchases in real-time, without needing to take a single item out to scan.
- Customer application integration – in-store geotargeting systems can link via Bluetooth to customer-facing smartphone applications to help locate specific items and provide other useful pieces of information, such as stock levels, current offers and the location of staff.
Cutting the cord with fixed broadband
Regardless of which scenario becomes a reality, any subsequent IoT strategy must begin with a reliable, secure and agile network. The first step is cutting the cord with fixed broadband connectivity and setting up a private in-store network running on LTE. Also known as wireless WAN (WWAN), this solution offers retailers greater levels of flexibility thanks to out-of-the-box connectivity and unparalleled reliability through multiple network channel management.
The second foundational requirement for retail IoT is SD-WAN. With the sheer quantity of network applications running in most branches, cloud monitoring and troubleshooting features – including automated alerts – SD–WAN enables retailers to cost-effectively manage WAN conditions at widespread locations. Crucially, SD-WAN also allows secure VPNs to be established in a matter of minutes, providing robust protection for devices and sensitive information, such as customer payment data.
Bringing innovation to retail at the network’s edge
A comprehensive IoT network, running on a reliable, fast and highly agile wireless SD-WAN provides retailers with the ability to gather, send, and analyse data at the edge of the network, thereby improving operational efficiency, sales, and customer experience. Leveraging the power of wireless, including 5G, 4G LTE and Bluetooth, stores can gradually build their digital capabilities in layers, with all devices able to compile, send to the cloud, and/or make decisions based on information from sensors and other IoT devices.
Retailers need reliable, easy-to-manage connectivity at the edge of their networks so enhanced POS, digital signs, kiosks, and numerous omni-channel devices applications can drive efficiency and customer satisfaction. With the right solutions and best practices in place, wireless WANs — including Gigabit-Class LTE and 5G — offer the flexibility, performance, and security necessary to enable all of these tools.