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GUEST COMMENT The new era of IT for omnichannel retailing

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The rise of the digital-era has come with heightened customer expectations for immediacy of service and seamless user experience across multiple channels. With omnichannel retail becoming the norm, retailers need to have the supporting technology in place for an efficient, flexible and scalable omnichannel provision. It is crucial for retail success.

Stores must now realise that transforming customer needs cannot be sustained by old in-store IT solutions. Infrastructure has to change in line with this demand for evolving technology, to ensure a seamless transition, to attracting new customers and keep current ones loyal.

Even online retail giant Amazon is continuing to embrace omnichannel retailing, with a recent announcement of their move into brick and mortar outlets. This highlights the importance of integrated online sites and physical stores for a positive connection with the customer.

In the new era of omnichannel, retailers need to focus on six key requirements for a successful transition to a more progressive retail experience.

1. Advanced applications and customer expectations

Customers are continuing to drive the omnichannel approach, with 84% believing that retailers should be doing more to integrate their online and offline channels.[1] To cope with the demand, new advanced applications are required to support the customer experience that retailers want to deliver. These new applications need to run across multiple device types and can rely heavily on advanced graphics and advanced point of sale activity. These applications require a virtualised infrastructure that can efficiently, flexibly and reliably support multiple applications without inbuilt latency issues.

2. Cloud integration for a successful customer journey

In order to deliver the best customer journey across all environments, in-store IT needs to be integrated with capabilities sitting in the public cloud. Most importantly, retailers must be able to recognize when a customer is in a particular store, so that locally purchased goods and services can be delivered locally. For example, if a customer has been browsing goods on-line and but goes into a store to purchase, then the retailer must be able to recognize this, check in-store stock, and offer and complete the purchase locally and seamlessly.

3. Local data storage for efficiency

Data must be stored and manipulated locally for policy, privacy or control reasons. The more data that is collected in store, whether this is from beacons, sensors, or other devices, the greater the requirement for efficient local storage.

4. The issue with data-heavy apps

Some data-heavy applications must be able to run locally in order to deliver the performance, responsiveness and reliability required. For example, smart mirrors for convenient clothes shopping, or design applications to visualise a bespoke kitchen in store, are best served by on-site applications and servers that are co-ordinated on a scheduled and regular basis. This comes into its own when network connections do not deliver sufficient bandwidth or operate reliably enough to facilitate remote access to data-heavy cloud or centrally held applications. A scenario which is all too regular and can cause frustration among an expectant customer base.

5. Consolidation of network functions

Network functions such as firewalls, routers and WAN optimisation – maximising the efficiency of data flow across a wide area – have already been successfully virtualised. The benefits of consolidating the network and IT functions on remote sites benefits the retail branch organisation. In addition to the space saved in combining two, three or four physical technology boxes into one, there are also power savings which helps to reduce CO2 emissions. Infrastructure cost is cut as multiple virtual software components running in the same server generally cost less to acquire than separate appliances with separate management systems and individual support agreements.

6. Integrated analytics – the cornerstone of an e-retailing strategy

On-line customer analytics are the cornerstone of a successful e-retailing strategy. An Omni-channel plan needs analytics collected across all channels to be integrated for an overall view of customer preferences and behaviour. The more data collected about buyers’ behaviour across all channels, the more personalised the retailers approach can be, leading to enhanced customer experience and consequent loyalty. In-store data collection is developing rapidly, with new advances such as RFID sensors, beacons and video that collect and exchange data on people, products and objects, or the environment. These devices generate a large amount of data for which there is an inherent need to store and analyse locally, with periodic communication and reporting to centralised control points.

Physical and virtualised IT – battling omnichannel woes

Combining physical and virtualised IT to adapt to the new era of Omni-channel might seem daunting. However two technologies sit at the heart of simplifying these two requirements – hybrid cloud and hyper-convergence. Hybrid cloud allows organisations to choose what IT functionality remains in the branch and what is delivered from the cloud. It offers all the advantages of control and responsiveness but it doesn’t require any manual intervention. It can also be refreshed and secured through the cloud by experts.

Hyper-convergence tightly integrates compute, storage, virtualisation and other IT functions into a single appliance. It brings on-premise benefits of the cloud, offering flexible and expandable capability easily but without the need for expensive and complex IT.

Embracing the cloud

Cloud Managed Servers combine these two developments to deliver packaged IT functionality, which can be run in any branch, regardless of local IT support skills or the resilience of local network connectivity. They allow for a flexible IT strategy with applications situated where they deliver the most benefit, and support resources optimised across all stores. They deliver the capability to easily implement and maintain a consistent technology platform for all retail branches and offices, with a single set of data, and the best practices that arise from operating on a single repeatable technology stack.

An ideal strategy for the retail IT pro of a multisite business should be cloud everywhere: cloud-first for centralised applications with cloud managed servers on the edge. This needs to be a serious consideration for those looking to progress ahead of the evolving retail landscape, simplify in-store IT, reduce expenditure and enhance the user experience.

Nick East is chief executive of Zynstra

[1] Retail’s Main Event: Brick & Mortar vs. Online, RetailNext

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