Omni-channel retailing and the future of retail IT

By Brian Buggy, VP Product, Zynstra.

Increasingly, organisations are seeking to interact with their customers and clients in new and exciting ways. In response to customer demand, the lines between online and in-store retailers are blurring.

As the consumer journey crosses social, mobile and physical territory, omni-channel retailing – the combination of all in-store and online channels – is becoming a primary focus for retailers as they strive to deliver a seamless customer experience across all interactions and all channels.

Research shows that 84% of customers believe that retailers should be doing more to integrate their online and offline channels. The key to achieving this is to make available new, exciting customer engagement opportunities in-store, and then to integrate them with on-line engagements. New store applications will include the use of cameras that track and analyse customer interactions with product displays, interactive displays such as touch-screen walls and holographic images, mirrors that offer style advice, and smart trolleys that act as superstore sat-navigation and make checkouts a thing of the past. And combining these with a customer's online journey can deliver a complete view of customer preferences, and a differentiated customer experience.

As Clare Rayner, one of the UK's most well-known and well-respected retail personalities, puts it: "Today's omni-channel customers spend 3.5 times more than other shoppers. Those retailers that adapt to this trend are the ones that are being successful. Never has it been so important to ensure your IT infrastructure is scalable and future proof in order to meet the demands of tech savvy consumers while eliminating issues that arise from data protection, IT downtime and security across your retail branches or offices." Clare Rayner will be tackling these challenges at a breakfast briefing, organised by Zynstra, on 8 November in London where interested parties are free to attend.

The IT demands of omni-channel

To support increasingly advanced in-store applications, retailers need a new approach to in-store IT. They need increased in-store capability and capacity to support new applications, but they need these to be able to operate effectively and reliably without in-store technical support skills. There are five key considerations for the CIO looking to meet the demands of an omni-channel approach:

  1. New advanced applications which need to run across multiple device types rely heavily on advanced graphics and Interactive POS activity. They require an infrastructure that can efficiently, flexibly and reliably support multiple applications without in-built latency issues.
  2. Advanced data analytics are increasingly collected across all channels, and integrated to give a complete view of customer preferences and behaviour. With advances such as RFID sensors, beacons and video there is a range of devices that collect and exchange data in-store. This must be combined with online data as well as stored and analysed locally, with periodic communication and reporting to centralised control points.
  3. In order to deliver an end to end customer journey across all environments, in-store IT needs to be integrated with capabilities resident in the public cloud. It should be invisible to the shopper whether they are being served by local IT capability, or by cloud based applications.
  4. Advanced in-store technology assets such as video or providing staff with tablets which act as information points as well as mobile cash registers put increased pressure on IT infrastructure. To work effectively they have to be able to deliver a faultless user experience without suffering unnecessary delays.
  5. Space and budget are both at a premium for retailers. Investment in new infrastructure requires considerations into how to maximise space whilst keeping capital and management costs to a minimum.

Combining physical and virtualised IT

Two technologies sit at the heart of meeting this complex set of requirements - hybrid cloud and hyper-convergence. Hybrid cloud allows organisations to choose what IT functionality remains in the branch and what is delivered from the cloud. It offers all the advantages of control and responsiveness but it doesn't require any manual intervention: it can be kept up to date and secured through the cloud by experts.

Hyper-convergence is an architecture that tightly integrates compute, storage, virtualization and other IT functions into a single appliance, based on industry-standard hardware. It brings the benefits of the cloud to the premises, with flexible and expandable capability easily available but without the need for expensive and complex IT projects.

Game-changing IT investment

Cloud Managed Servers combine these two developments to deliver packaged IT functionality, which can be run in any branch, regardless of local IT support skills or the resilience of local network connectivity. They allow a flexible IT strategy with applications being placed where they deliver the most benefit, and support resources optimised across the whole distributed organization. They deliver the capability to easily implement and maintain a consistent technology platform for all retail branches and offices, with a single set of data, and the support best practices that arise from operating on a single repeatable technology stack.

There are now new opportunities available to retail CIOs. They no longer face a basic choice between simple in-store servers or public cloud based applications. Cloud Managed Servers deliver advanced branch application capability, integrated with online and cloud based channels, and a less complex IT infrastructure without the need for extensive distributed IT expertise. For those looking to get ahead in the omni-channel world, or indeed just to simplify their in-store IT, it's an option well worth considering.

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