Has the retail sector digitally transformed?

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This article is brought to you by Retail Technology Review: Has the retail sector digitally transformed?.

By Richard Sharod, Vice President, Stratus Technologies.

Digital transformation within retail used to mean simply creating an online store to attract customers that, for whatever reason, couldn’t get to the physical location.

Today, digital transformation encapsulates so much more and includes the complete retail experience. Companies that are laying the groundwork now are being rewarded with more efficient and secure operations while futureproofing against the unpredictable nature of the sector.

So, why has digital transformation become so important for retailers? Covid-19 acted as a lightning rod for accelerating digital transformation, for retail and many other sectors, so it isn’t a surprise that online sales grew, and businesses adapted to new ways of operating. Simply being able to purchase online isn’t enough though, customers expect mobile applications, live chat features, and secure payment options, and that’s just for starters.

As we enter a post-pandemic world, retail sales haven’t quite reached a pre-pandemic levels but they are getting back to where they should be and shoppers have returned to retail spaces and expect all the functionality of an online store with the added personal customer experience. Whether the shopper is online or in-store, they expect staff to have instant access to stock levels, personalisation options, and in-depth product knowledge. 

Meeting these exceedingly high customer expectations requires a robust backbone of technology, not only facilitating the online sales but providing real-time actionable data to employees. With this in place, retail leaders are also able to explore future capabilities and new services that will set them apart in this competitive sector. 

Starting at the Edge and working in

With a plethora of new technologies available, it can be difficult for business owners to know where to start or how to identify the right areas to deliver value from digital transformation technologies. The starting point should always be the edge of the network, creating a strong foundation for any transformation journey, ready for future capabilities. Edge Computing works the same for retail as it does for the multitude of other sectors.

In short, it means shifting some or most of the computing requirements much closer to where it is most useful – the application edge. While unplanned downtime in retail may not be a safety issue in the same way as it can be in a factory, the on-site collection, real-time analysis, and cyber security of vital data should be seen is a top priority for businesses keen to compete in the modern retail mix.  

Retail produces a huge amount of operational data including transaction processing, logistics information, stock reports, customer, or payment data. The loss of any of these datasets results in a retail business losing money, but it could also mean lasting reputational damage. It doesn’t matter if you are managing a single store, or a national or international network with tens or hundreds of stores, Edge Computing is the technology with a provable Return on Investment that will start delivering value almost immediately. 

Edge Computing looks to fill the gap where other fail safes fall short. For example, a retail owner may have backup generators installed in case of a power outage. This is all well and good, but what about in-store server failure? In such a circumstance, it’s likely that customers can’t pay for their goods, managers have no understanding of product stocks or income and this is without even considering the security risks if building management systems and alarms are tied to that server.

To mitigate this risk, retail business owners need to seek an Edge Computing solution with built in resilience. That chosen solution needs the capacity to keep applications running in the event of a failure with zero disruption of services.  Business owners and customers can continue to operate knowing that their valuable customer data is safe and secure and their cyber security measures remain operational. 

Edge Computing also offers simplicity – vital for remote stores where there is limited or no IT expertise. The right Edge Computing solution will not only be simple to install but simple to use, meaning anyone onsite can to react to any issues before they develop into downtime events.  

The digitally transformed retail space

Edge Computing is a fantastic first step on the digital transformation journey, providing peace-of-mind for owner and shopper alike. And importantly, it provides the computing infrastructure and flexibility for businesses to develop into the future.

With Edge Computing in place, multi-site businesses have the necessary onsite infrastructure to integrate with ERP software. This offers an enterprise-wide view and simplifies the ordering of new stock and inventory management. It also gives management the ability to compare the performance of multiple locations and identify best practices that can be replicated. 

Those retail businesses that are advanced can use the computing power and deploy machine learning and predictive analytics. This is the best way to predict what a customer wants by using data science to identify shopping patterns, create promotions, personalise products and analyse historical trends. This sort of capability was once only reserved for the largest retail giants with big budgets and largely limited to the online environment. Thanks to Edge Computing, retail businesses of any size can be prepared for whatever their customers need before they need it. 

Artificial intelligence in the online environment is another capability that many small retail businesses may dismiss as beyond their reach. But far beyond simple chatbot functionality, AI can provide a 24-hour customer contact that has access to all the store information while upselling new products based specifically on that customer’s previous engagement.

Any business can implement a chatbot that responds with opening times or basic information, but by utilising the immense amount of data found in the retail and logistics of an organisation, it can create a team of new, virtual employees that deliver value and continues selling no matter what time it is. 

Digital transformation can be a daunting journey if you don’t know where to start, small businesses can look at artificial intelligence or predictive analytics and think it isn’t possible for their restricted budget. But, with the addition of Edge Computing, retail businesses of any size can now advance computing capabilities to levels previously only reserved for retail giants.

Even without seeking those capabilities, Edge Computing creates an infrastructure that is much more resilient, ensuring customers always have a positive experience and their vital information is protected, whether they are shopping in store or online. These benefits are already being seen by retail businesses who have deployed Edge Computing. A good example is Dis-Chem, a pharmacy retailer who have been growing their edge footprint to over 220 stores since 2014.

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