Edge computing and the modern retailer

Retail Technology Review spoke with Jamie Bourassa, Vice President, Edge Computing, Schneider Electric at the recent Retail Expo 2019 about the company’s EcoStruxure Ready edge computing architecture and what advantages it can bring to the retailer marketplace.

With the high street struggling to compete with online retailers, many of today’s most high-profile and influential department stores, supermarkets, fashion and fast food chains are turning to digitisation and edge computing to transform the customer experience and generate new revenue. New technologies including digital signage and augmented reality (AR) applications are being used to drive footfall and transform the fitting room experience. Whilst in-store, tablets and smart-devices enable real-time stock checks and placement of new orders, ensuring that customer retention and conversions are maximised at every opportunity.

Essential to this transformative and digitised customer experience are the integrated power, security and connectivity solutions, which ensure that today’s electronic point of sale (EPoS) systems, WiFi and security systems stay online, and remain both profitable and relevant to the consumers of today. However, the technology which underpins this complex environment will often require compute power in areas that aren’t typically built for IT. At Retail Expo 2019, Schneider Electric demonstrated how today’s businesses can use the company’s EcoStruxure to help drive profitability in a highly competitive environment.

“With the rise and rise of ecommerce, there is now a tremendous amount of pressure on brick and mortar retail,” said Jamie Bourassa, Vice President, Edge Computing, Schneider Electric. “However, across all the commercial applications used within retail we are seeing a shift in how technology is used in order to enhance the consumer experience.” Bourassa explained that, in the past, technology was something that was used on the side as an additional part of making the business more efficient and driving experience for the customer. “What we have seen develop over the past couple of years is a shift in how digitalisation is being used in value creation and the promise retailers are making to their customers,” he said. “In fact, we’re seeing similar trends in healthcare with hospital settings shifting to more localised retail-like settings; similarly in banking.”

So, now digital technology is being embedded into the value creation technology for customers and is being used in a different way. Take Magic Mirror-type digital signage – this is a kind of modern digital experience that allows fashion retail customers enjoy a more personalised shopping experience; for example, being able to change the colour of garments on screen. “With this type of technology, there is a computer and a network requirement to connect that compute back to the content,” Bourassa pointed out. “So, it needs to be connected in an Omnichannel way to the retailer’s e-commerce system. All those technology connections have shifted to being part of the value creation. They need to be available because they are actually being asked for by customers who are coming to the store.”

Bourassa offered an analogy between a grocery store and fashion retailer. “If you shop for groceries and find there is no milk or eggs on the shelves, you’ll think this is not a very effective store. Similarly, if you go to a fashion retailer and try to use the digital experience and it's not there it's not going to be a disappointment for customers.”

However, to make this kind of digital experience a reality, Bourassa explained that there are a number of challenges that need to be addressed. “First, there may not be IT staff where this type of technology is being deployed, and there are issues regarding network availability and onsite computing to deal with network downtime. There are also a number of new digital elements that are required. For example, Schneider Electric did a refresh for a US pharmacy five years ago. They had five or six core digital systems five years ago, and after the refresh they now have over 20. So, there is this explosion of how many digital elements are needed to be part of the experience.”

Of course, Schneider Electric doesn’t make Magic Mirrors. “What we do is provide the foundational infrastructure that creates the resiliency that is going to keep that type of digital experience highly available,” said Bourassa. “Our EcoStruxure products offer a combination of software, management and services as well as standard sets of hardware brought together as a solution. It’s converged architecture designed to really deal with the imperatives that brick and mortar retailers have to deal with, which is to be able to cost-effectively deploy and cost-effectively manage over the life-cycle while driving that level of resiliency that is necessary to ensure that value promise to customers is available at all times. So, the computers and the appliances all sit on top of the infrastructure platform. This is what makes the modern digital experience in retail possible.”

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