In today’s highly competitive, multi-channel world, retailers are constantly looking for ways to maintain and improve their competitive edge. The challenges this brings fall primarily into two important types: Firstly, the need to attract and retain customers and secondly, the requirement to train and retain employees.

Attracting and retaining mobile-enabled and Internet-savvy customers requires putting information at their fingertips and in their line of vision, helping them make informed choices while also creating personalised loyalty and reward programs to keep them coming back. 

High-quality Wi-Fi access is also important to feed customers’ need to stay socially connected. Without this, retailers run the risk of customers using their stores only as a showcase for online retailers, who may offer a cheaper price but not provide the breadth of value-added services possible in a physical shopping environment.      

No less important is the need to train and retain quality staff: Shop-floor brand ambassadors should know at least as much or more about their products than savvy customers and positively and accurately reflect the outward face of the brand. 

Tomorrow’s network today

The technologies and applications emerging to meet these challenges are set to change the landscape of the store of tomorrow. Yet as businesses adopt dynamic in-store innovations, they will also need to ensure that their networks keep pace with the growing bandwidth demands of these new applications. 

The retail network must support an ever-more complex multi-channel environment. Maximum uptime is essential in supporting rapid POS, real-time promotions, interactive digital signage and loyalty programmes. It must also meet the challenge of increasing security threats and compliance demands at a time when IT budgets are stretched to the limit.    

Despite the inherent challenges faced, technology is an enabler rather than a barrier in bringing the retailer and customer closer together. The ‘store of the future’ is already taking shape, with new technologies and managed services helping to boost sales though providing a more personalised service, at the same time improving operational efficiencies and network performance.

Driving revenue across all channels

The role of retail stores is rapidly evolving to become one part of a much more complex and challenging relationship between the retailer and consumer. 

In a truly multi-channel world, the purpose of the store changes from ‘driving sales of the product in-store’ to being a brand and product showroom that ‘drives revenues across all channels’. This represents a big shift in delivering the customer experience. 

From enabling effective product availability, better visual merchandising, and customer service excellence, this must expand to create a personalised lifestyle experience for each customer.

Increasingly, high street and out-of-town stores are using service as a differentiator in competing with the threat of online retailers. Yet their continued importance should not be under-estimated. Recent research shows, for example, that 78% of consumers bought their last item of clothing and accessories in-store, while only 8% made their last purchase of these categories online [Deloitte].

Despite currently accounting for a relatively small share of turnover, digital sales are predicted to continue to grow and retailers will need to re-evaluate the use of retail footage, with space being focused less on driving the sale of products in-store and more on engaging the customer.

In response, retailers have redoubled their efforts to create dramatic customer experiences through in-store atmospherics that distinguish the store experience from other channels. The type of customer experiences and store theatre will vary by the category and individual customer needs. 

Digital signage, front and back

Progressive retailers are harnessing the power of interactive video to create new customer experiences in-store that stimulate sales and keeps them coming back. Whether it’s showing the latest fashions in high-definition and surround-sound, or teaching ‘do-it-yourselfers’ how to lay ceramic tile, retailers are turning to video content to attract customers. The key here is to keep experiences fresh, with relevant and regularly-updated digital content to drive sales.

For employees on lunch breaks, the same technology serves to inform them about everything from the latest promotions, to the CEO’s message, to changes in corporate benefits and policies – all in the name of having more aware, responsive and happier employees, which inevitably leads to greater customer satisfaction. 
 
Connecting with Mobile Customers 
 
Many modern consumers now expect to be able to access product information by scanning a barcode, for example, or using their mobile phone as a substitute for their credit card. Greater adoption of technology by consumers has meant that retailers need to stay abreast of the latest mobile technologies to support the new breed of connected consumer. 

Retail has become one of the largest purchasers of tablet computers. In a retail environment, a tablet can serve as both an easy-to-use, constantly-updated catalogue, as well as a point-of-sale device or to provide personalised assistance and shopping service to customers.
Additionally, increased adoption of tablets in-store is likely to support retail operations such as stock management. 

Retailers are leveraging technology in-store to create dramatic and unique customer experiences. Touch screens and magic mirrors, for example, are being used to allow customers to interact with the product, the brand, with other customers and their friends. 

The shopping experience is also being made easier through payment technologies, enabling quick and easy instore transactions. Mobile POS, mobile payments and biometric technologies are all being evaluated in the drive to reduce queues and make the instore experience as simple as the ‘one click’ online purchasing process.

‘Greener’ consumers are becoming more aware that their buying habits have a direct impact on the environment and want to know that whatever they buy is benefiting rather than damaging the planet. 

Here too, technology can help retailers to provide transparency of information and enable informed shopping decisions. Just as today’s customer does not distinguish between buying channels, the store needs to support a seamless integration with all other routes to market, providing real-time access to a full range of products, order information and customer processes.

The growing role of Wi-Fi

Most modern coffee shops and hotels now offer free Wi-Fi as a matter of course. Yet in meeting what is a becoming a basic expectation among consumers, retailers have sometimes been reluctant to develop a similar network in stores. 

In part, this is because of fear that customers using smart phones or tablets will comparison shop, thereby encouraging them to buy competitors’ products. 

However, research with North American retailers suggests that providing a Wi-Fi network actually increases the likelihood of purchasing. While some sales are lost from comparison shopping, it’s more than offset by connected consumers being less likely to leave without purchasing and spending more overall.

Bringing the retailer closer to its customer base, Wi-Fi access in stores also enables the tracking of customers’ online behaviour, including which competitors they are visiting and browsing behaviour. A pool of customer data can be developed so the retailer can provide personalised targeting on future visits. Wi-Fi can also facilitate push applications such as localised targeting of information, discounts and up-selling to customers’ mobile devices. 

Providing access to stock availability over the Wi-Fi cloud frees up time for employees to spend on more valuable activities such as customer service. Deployment of Wi-Fi-enabled tablets as interactive catalogues and order systems also significantly enhances customer service.

The key to success here is the adoption of an integrated Wi-Fi platform backed by a comprehensive managed service. Latest developments in Wi-Fi technology have overcome previous concerns over connectivity and bandwidth, with the result that retailers can access additional services utilising social media technologies, while at the same time maintaining full PCI compliance and the highest levels of security, in terms of both detection and prevention.       

For example, the latest social Wi-Fi and analytics solutions allow retailers to track the footfall of customers around all parts of the store, to identify which areas are visited most. The resulting customer analytics is enriched by the ability to drill down to demographic information such as age, gender, and personal interests. Guest access also allows customers to access Wi-Fi through their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Google+ accounts.

Automatic and on demand reporting helps the retailer ensure full and cost-effective PCI compliance. Similarly, wireless intrusion prevention systems (WIPS) and Wi-Fi protection secures the retail network from such threats as rogue access points and devices, wireless hacking and denial of service attacks, so ensuring that data is not compromised.   

Benefits of managed services 

Building the store of the future today invariably requires an organisation-wide solution to design, implement and manage the underlying network, ensuring that the right message is communicated to the right people at the right time – whether it’s about attracting and retaining customers or training and retaining employees. 

Yet, given the continuing expanding breadth of applications and technology choices possible, it’s a daunting prospect for retailers to tackle it alone, especially in times of tight budgets and slow economies. That’s why today, many are realising the many benefits of selecting a trusted managed network service partner to run their network, so they can instead focus their energies on running their businesses.

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