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Lessons for retailers: Finding opportunity in a challenging time

The way customers shop has forced retailers of all sizes to rethink their businesses. One solution: the 'hyper-aware' store.

While retailers contemplate what business will look like as they fully reopen their stores, many are embracing the changes forced on retail operations as a chance to transform or adapt their business workflows.

While some retailers hunkered down and limited spending, others decided to go in the opposite direction. Many companies knew their customers depended on their products and took the opportunity to expand their services, while more general retail providers looked to keep up their revenue streams. Delivering a broader range of edge-focused services, from implementing faster shipping and delivery to offering new ways of contactless product pickup, the industry has seen an increased focus on the edge of the retail experience.

Selling on the edge

All these digital efforts have helped improve the customer experience and shorten the time it takes people to order online for delivery or to grab their items from a local store. Many retailers are using edge computing technology and IoT devices to become even more relevant today.

Deloitte says digital acceleration was a top priority for 88 percent of retailers surveyed in 2021. In-store tech funding, meanwhile, had already reached $2.2 billion in the first quarter of 2021—four times what it was at the same time in the previous year, a global CB Insights report found. Funding for e-commerce technology in particular jumped 73 percent from the last quarter of 2020 to $11.7 billion, the research firm says.

According to Gerri Hinkel, director of solutions and vertical markets at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, much of this investment was driven by pandemic necessity. But she notes retailers are also taking the long view and deploying edge-driven digital technologies that they believe will propel them through whatever things look like in the future.

"Meeting the needs of today's shoppers can be challenging," she says. "They have higher expectations than ever before for touch-free, interactive, and personalized services. I think you'll see a continuing retail appetite, therefore, for smart technologies that facilitate shopping online or in physical stores, making them as smooth, efficient, and enjoyable as possible—for shoppers and workers alike."

Retail becomes 'hyper-aware'

Hinkel predicts that, before long, all retail channels will become "hyper-aware." By that she is referring to a model where applications are cognizant of the contextual status of an environment, occupants, energy consumption, service needs, security, and safety, with IoT becoming the eyes and ears of retail organizations. It can generate logical representations of a wide variety of physical data, such as:

  • Which products are on store shelves, and are they in the right place?

  • How many people are in the store, and why?

  • What are the environmental settings of the store, and are they comfortable for the vast majority?

For example, imagine a loyal customer sitting at home searching a retailer's website for the perfect electric toothbrush. Rather than buying the item online, she decides to go into a local outlet to see it in person and compare it with similar offerings. As she walks up to the front door, a camera tied to location-based services and facial recognition technology notes her arrival.

The store's database system is immediately alerted and consulted. Artificial intelligence technology reviews her recent browsing history and determines she is likely there to shop for electric toothbrushes. The AI automatically checks to see if the item of interest is in stock and, after discovering it is not, assembles a list of other electric toothbrushes. An associate carrying a wireless device is then alerted to greet the shopper near the entrance, confirm what she's looking for, take her to the shelves with the items, and offer any one of them at a discount given the inconvenience. If the customer wants the item, the associate could then check her out on the spot from a portable point-of-sale (POS) device.

Such hyper-aware scenarios might sound relatively easy to pull off, but they have proved elusive until now because there are so many data-driven technologies involved and those technologies do not talk to one another very well. What's more, trying to move so much IoT data from core networks out to remote locations and back again—without much latency or lag time—is a huge challenge.

"Ensuring a consistent shopping journey across different interfaces—such as online, in store, and so on—is a key challenge for the application of digital technology in stores," says Filippo Battaini, a retail industry analyst at IDC in Europe. "Retailers need to effectively harness customer data gathered from different sources by breaking data silos and employing the right analytics tools to achieve a single view of the shopper."

Edge overcomes IoT challenges

This is part of the reason retailers are increasingly considering underlying edge computing management and security capabilities. "Edge computing provides the unified infrastructure retailers need to connect POS, scanners, kiosks, and shopper devices together while bringing management, security, and troubleshooting onto a single platform," says Hinkel. "It enables retailers to implement zero trust scenarios to ensure people accessing networks are who they claim to be. And it integrates AI operations to automatically optimize network performance and reveal issues before they can impact customer satisfaction or store revenues."

Many retailers have seen these types of results from their latest business experiences using edge computing, and from the public's reaction, such new or modified retail experiences have been largely seen as positive changes to the customer experience.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.