By Serge Denizyaran at Systal Technology Solutions.
Which aspect of retailing has a direct impact on staff productivity, cooperation and collaboration between stores, customer experience and future product development and marketing?
In-store Wi-Fi might not be the first thing to spring to mind, but it actually has a close relationship with all of these factors – and many others – which is why delivering reliable, secure and cost-effective Wi-Fi should be a major priority for retailers in multiple different vertical markets. The reality, however, is that in an environment with severe pressure on profit margins and ever-stricter regulatory frameworks, many retailers are struggling to deliver high quality Wi-Fi. But there may be a solution.
Why Wi-Fi matters
Wi-Fi for retailers has two possible audiences – staff and customers.
From a staff perspective, in-store Wi-Fi can power a huge range of digital functions, from the usual email and web browsing, to specialist applications like live backroom stock checking, and collaboration with warehouses and delivery hubs. But it can also enable greater collaboration between stores, and between stores and central offices, for example, by allowing live shopping data to be fed back immediately to marketing teams.
From a customer perspective, offering instore Wi-Fi, particularly in larger stores, can be a fantastic addition to general customer experience, simply by allowing them to get online while shopping. But it can also be a platform for offering bespoke applications that enhance the specific in-store experience, perhaps by enabling customers to 'build' potential outfits or browse styling ideas online before they buy.
In-store Wi-Fi can thus be the engine for improved productivity, enhanced customer experience, service innovation and product development.
The key problem is that brand-new, enterprise-grade Wi-Fi systems can easily cost thousands of pounds per employee, per year. That can be a push even for enormous organisations – for smaller retail chains running a handful of shops, it's completely prohibitive.
As a result, many smaller retail organisations resort to routers that are aimed primarily at domestic settings. That should be good enough to handle a few emails, the thinking goes, and anything more sophisticated simply isn't appropriate or cost-effective. But in dynamic, live retail environments the reliability of home-grade routers is often severely problematic, leading to erratic or dropped services that are almost more restrictive than having no Wi-Fi to begin with. Furthermore, corporate IT teams don't have the training to service these domestic products, which makes troubleshooting very difficult.
Then, when problems inevitably occur, individual outlets are typically left to repair or replace their own hardware, which tends to lead to a 'mix and match' environment. Different routers from different vendors are deployed in different stores, with little, if any, overriding visibility of how the individual Wi-Fi networks are operated.
Restricted productivity, neglected data, weak experience
From a staff point of view, the upshot is frustration and lack of productivity, with the usual expected knock-on effects to the business bottom line. If staff members move from one store to another, the likelihood is that they will be unable to smoothly slot into the technology at the second location too. There will probably be difficulties associated with authenticating remote access, thanks to service latency and inconsistent login procedures.
From a customer point of view, either no Wi-Fi is offered in the first place, meaning that the retailer is completely failing to capitalise on the customer experience possibilities outlined above, or that service is patchy at best, which can be even more damaging from a reputation perspective. Then there's the question of all the data that could be potentially collected on those customers and used to drive service improvements – no Wi-Fi means no data collection. The retailer cannot analyse browsing and shopping habits, or collect email addresses for loyalty campaigns – processes their competitors are likely to be undertaking.
A cloud-based solution?
Happily, there is a solution available.
For retailers for whom enterprise-grade Wi-Fi is cost-prohibitive or simply inappropriate to the scale of the business, cloud-based Wi-Fi solutions can be the answer. By building virtual private network (VPN) connections from individual stores back to a centralised datacentre, these solutions can offer retailers enterprise-grade Wi-Fi reliability and quality, but without the typical hefty outlay.
What is needed to implement cloud-based Wi-Fi. Each retail outlet, whether a store or an office, needs to be kitted out with a small cloud security appliance. Then, a business-grade ADSL line (or two home-grade ADSL lines from different ISPs) needs to be set up. That's about it!
The crucial point is that an ADSL line typically costs over 85% less than an annual Business VPN line contract, which immediately slashes costs. A retailer choosing this kind of solution could potentially save thousands of pounds every year.
Of course, the benefits of cloud-based Wi-Fi aren't just financial. Such solutions enable a far more joined-up approach to Wi-Fi throughout the business, whereby staff can connect to the corporate Wi-Fi in the same way no matter which store or office they are working out of. Mobile working is also enabled, as individual staff members can be equipped with personal Wi-Fi connectivity devices – this is especially useful at pop-up stores and temporary premises, or events when the retailer is exhibiting or presenting. And of course, this model offers a far more reliable and high-quality basis for offering Wi-Fi to customers in-store – Wi-Fi that can then harvest valuable customer data according to how many people are using the service, in which stores and which sites they are visiting.
From a legal and regulatory compliance point of view it is of course important to check that all data transmitted via such a Wi-Fi network is fully encrypted all the way back to the datacentre, providing complete separation of traffic from the public Internet. Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) must be adhered to, and a clear audit trail generated and recorded for inspection purposes.
With all this in mind, savvy retailers should implement a cloud-based Wi-Fi solution from a true retail specialist – a provider who understands the precise nuances and challenges of their sector, and the pressures they are under. Retailers are justifiably concerned about profit margins, the customer experience and regulatory compliance, but cloud-based Wi-Fi really can improve all these functions. A secure, standardised and cost-effective platform for internet access is no longer a luxury extra, but a crucial part of 21st century retail.