Intelligent infrastructure: Why being connected is essential in retail environments

The first quarter of this year recorded a 2.4% year on year fall in retail jobs, according to figures from the British Retail Consortium – largely thanks to an increase in ‘small format stores, with many larger stores closing’. Brexit and wider political uncertainty rumbles on, with the consequences for the retail industry still unclear, but likely to be turbulent. A judge has raised the probability of department store Debenhams going into administration as early as September, whilst Patisserie Valerie, LK Bennett, Select and Bathstore have been other high-profile industry casualties this year.

Yet the landscape is not all doom and gloom. The latest statistics from the Retail Sales Index suggest in the three months to June of this year, the quantity bought increased by 0.7%, with a year-on-year growth rate of 3.8%in June. Theoretically, the country could enter calmer political waters this autumn.

The only certainty, then, seems to be uncertainty. Retailers must compete in a hostile and fast-moving environment, amidst changing consumer habits and a broader sense of political and financial upheaval. One key factor in delivering this competitiveness is digital innovation in retail environments.

What does in-store digital innovation look like?

What do we mean by this? As retail customers become increasingly likely to carry highly powerful mobile devices running on high-speed and high-capacity 5G cellular networks, and as the expanding IoT continues to drive innovations both in the home and in public spaces, so customers in retail stores will see intelligent, connected experiences as the norm, not a luxury extra.

At the most basic level, then, offering high-quality in-store WiFi means that retailers are responding to customer expectations and ensuring that the shopping experience doesn’t impede or frustrate shoppers who want to be able to browse the internet or access social media.

On a more sophisticated level, however, in-store WiFi can form the foundation for an array of more innovative and creative experiences. Bespoke applications, potentially integrated with IoT sensors placed throughout the store, can do everything from offer cross-selling and up-selling ideas, to allowing browsers to digitally try on an effort, or place an item of furniture in a representation of their home. The gamification possibilities are broad too, with savvy retailers looking for new opportunities to both build loyalty and extend the leisure possibilities of their stores.

Then there’s the back-office side of things to consider. High-speed wireless connectivity can power intelligent approaches to inventory management and checking on-shelf availability, automating manual processes and consolidating different sources of information to enable stores to run more efficiently. This improves working conditions for retail staff, and allows them to be more customer-focused and more informative and responsive.

What are the foundations for digital innovation?

Getting this right, however, requires a considered and careful approach to in-store infrastructure. Get that wrong and the whole endeavour can be prohibitively expensive or complex.

But where to begin? Enterprise-grade WiFi solutions can be hugely effective – but very expensive, particularly for any organisation smaller than the biggest department stores and multinational retailers. But clearly technology aimed primarily at domestic deployments is not going to be powerful enough.

Cloud-based WiFi can offer a compromised route forward, whereby individual stores run on virtual private networks (VPNs) from a single centralised database. And, as with all cloud computing deployments, the benefits in terms of elastic scalability, flexibility and agility are substantial.

Above all, however, retailers need to take a strategic and highly tailored approach to rolling out network infrastructure. This means developing a network strategy for all stores, individually and as a cohesive whole. It means undertaking bandwidth modelling, to establish those stores’ requirements today but also in the future, should new innovations be made in customer-facing applications.

Robust and reliable digital innovation and connectivity has become as important as part of retail infrastructure as their utilities and energy services. Smart networking means smarter retailers.