Retail brands are facing the challenges of a rollercoaster economy by embracing omnichannel as a go-forward strategy. Brick and mortar chains are expanding their online presence’ and upgrading the in-store experience as well as launching new store openings that provide an immersive branded customer experience consistent with their online offering. Online direct to consumer (DTC “Digital natives”) are leveraging their deep experience in new technologies to experiment with popup stores, digital kiosks and new retail store openings. The goal for both is to provide the customer with a consistent branded experience across all channels that they service.
Reducing wait time for a better retail customer experience
The reasons people like shopping online are well-documented. For the most part, it comes down to reduced wait time. Turn on the computer, do some searches, find exactly what you need, pay and anticipate your purchase. The only place where the brick and mortar store has an advantage is the last part of the online experience; at the retailer the customer gets immediate satisfaction when their purchase is made.
There is a lot the retailer can do when upgrading stores or supporting new store openings to reduce wait time:
- In-store directories—Directories help customers locate floor stock and may allow for warehouse or next closest store checking for merchandise
- Employee locators—When a customer needs help they can press a call button on the floor or trigger a request on their GPS-enabled app to notify nearby employee devices
- Warehouse management—Automated warehouses make it easier for employees to check for availability of stock and to find it quickly on warehouse shelves
- Personalization—This works very well online, transferring that same personalized experience to the retail floor is a work in progress. One interesting idea will work if online customers allow themselves to be identified as they enter the store. Their purchase history can be reviewed, and an AI system can suggest complimentary items that are in-store, and trigger a custom wayfinder to the merchandise.
- Fulfillment—Automated warehouse systems may use floor or overhead track robots to deliver merchandise to the customer. In addition, some chains may find it possible to increase daily deliveries, perhaps to as many as every half-hour from a nearby distribution center. The system could discover that the merchandise is due in the store in 20 minutes, and offer the customer a coupon for a free coffee while he/she waits.
- Virtual Reality—Personalized virtual dressing rooms are available today, where the customer can visualize what they would look like in a garment without going through the trouble and time of trying it on
- Digital signage—Systems are available that run as content Management Systems (CMS), supplying content to in-store displays, which can include product uses, instructions, in-store specials, etc. In the near future these should be interactive to some degree.
Minimizing wait times means that customers are more receptive to embracing the customer experience offered by the store, which can encourage more sales, or provide motivation for a return visit. Many retailers are considering augmented reality, in-store programming and aids to accessibility, all of which can require Internet connections and increased bandwidth.
Technology for retail employees
Retailers also need to take advantage of emerging technologies to help their employees be more efficient and productive. Employees can send customers to the right department and notify an employee in the department of the customer in transit. They can check floor inventory, warehouse inventory, supply chain status, or special order from another store. They can offer each other direction and advice, receive important store-wide announcements discreetly, and clock in/clock out.
New store opening retail technology checklist
For new store openings that are designed with digital and omnichannel in mind, provisions should be made for adequate equipment closets, room for conduit/raceways and appropriate electrical power. Measures must be taken to provide proper separation between network and power cables. Because a new store is not operating during this time, efficient installation procedures that would otherwise be disruptive to customers and employees can be used. New store buildout make it easier to plan for future cabling infrastructure to support future retail technology rollouts. When planning the customer experience, retail brands should consider this checklist:
- Network infrastructure—Every modern retail store has a network to handle in-store processing systems, telephones, WiFi, POS and various alarms. For efficiency, performance and effective maintenance the wiring for these networks is designed and built according to the principles of structured cabling and design.
- Loss prevention—Loss prevention technology comprises two classes; video surveillance and RFID tags. In recent years, Organized Retail Crime (ORC) is costing retailers 2-3% of sales, drawing far more attention to loss prevention. Today’s RFID technology offers better tags that support product identification, and camera technology continues to improve image quality at reduced price. While both of these technology classes offer more and better information, there is a cost in additional bandwidth.
- Life safety alarms—“Smart” smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are coming to the market that can connect to a store’s WiFi, and send network-based alerts to smart devices.
- Employee communications—In addition to in-store communications, often supported by WiFi, employees can have at least limited access to the Internet on their devices, to check the company website, locate information in the company network, or similar.
- Beacons—Early Bluetooth beacons responded simply with an identification packet, and they were often battery operated. Today beacons are starting to appear that can be programmed, so they require Internet connectivity and often 120V power.
- Internet kiosks—Most kiosk providers can set up Internet access via cell phone, bypassing the stores network. Some organizations may not approve of this for policy reasons, and prefer that all edge devices in the store are connected to, and managed by, the store network
- Electronic shelf labels—ESLs make price changes electronically and near simultaneously over an entire chain. Employees no longer have to peel and set bin labels manually, and improper pricing issues are dramatically reduced. Many ESL systems require their own WAN or WiFi network.
- Streaming video programming—Video programming either produced internally or sourced from a third-party targets in-store customers with product information, promotions and outreach. High quality wide-screen video can be very high bandwidth.
- POS-Self-checkout, traditional check out mix—The ratio of traditional POS to self-checkout stations has come under scrutiny as store numbers show that employee headcount is not reduced and losses due to theft increase. Still, some brands seeking to provide more convenience to customers buying few items are continuing to install self-checkout.
- Cashierless stores—These have many different configurations and use cases. In general, cameras follow a customer around a store, and sophisticated imaging technology is used to determine that a purchase has been made. When the customer exits, her account is charged and a receipt generated. While there have been trial implementations, this technology is not in wide use now.
- Curbside pickup—Popular during the Pandemic, this is still in use with retailers who have a portion of their customer base that prefers to avoid in-store visits. Curbside systems can be installed in special parking spaces or be entirely app-based, allowing the customer to signal their arrival and exact location to delivery personnel. These are sometimes implemented with WiFi networks on the store’s exterior.
- Inhouse fulfillment centers—Customers can have on-line convenience and in-store fulfillment when they purchase online and then go to the store to pickup merchandise, either in-store or curbside. This experience demands close integration between employee communications, warehouse automation and the online presence to deliver the expected experience.
This checklist covers many promising retail technologies available today that can cut down on customer wait time, enhance the customer in-store experience, and propel retailers toward a complete omnichannel offering. While some traditionally connect through cellular service, new store openings and some complete overhauls allow for all new structured cabling and power drops, making Internet access through reliable, managed networks feasible. Careful planning for future capabilities can speed deployment and implementation when those technologies are rolled out.
An experienced structured cabling designer/installer like Telecom Designs can help retailers take advantage of today’s available technologies faster and cheaper, while allowing for growth as new opportunities present. Contact us today.