By Samir Sandesara

For many retailers, the customer experience is about much more than customer satisfaction scores. More than anything, today’s customers want a personalized, quick and easy shopping experience, a frictionless experience. These expectations are heavily shaped by online retail experiences, challenging brick-and-mortar retailers to transform their physical stores into engaging, personalized experience centers powered by real-time intelligence. Whereas e-commerce sites can analyze customer patterns, product interactions, and cross-sell recommendations, physical store retailers increasingly need to leverage their treasure troves of data to generate similar insights. When collected accurately and analyzed quickly, the data already residing on-site can be used to predict demand, optimize inventory, and deliver the better experiences customers expect.

Customer Expectations Are Growing

Retailers have one chance to deliver a positive in-store experience. According to 451 Research, part of S&P Global Market Intelligence, 80 percent of consumers say they’re likely to stop doing business with a company due to a poor customer experience. The same report found that most customers expect retailers to deliver numerous capabilities, including contactless payments, curbside pickup, a mobile shopping app and delivery services.

Today, innovative retailers are tapping into data in their stores to better deliver these customer expectations by modernizing their stores through the application of cloud-native technologies, optimizing them for on-site deployment. Leveraging advances in infrastructure, data management capabilities and core operations, retailers can utilize data generated in stores to transform the customer journey at every touchpoint. They’re turning to technologies such as hyperconverged infrastructure to rapidly meet evolving customer expectations. The edge-optimized versions, which are designed to fit in smaller, less controlled spaces, can simplify lifecycle management and new use case deployments, all while offering high availability and being remotely manageable.

One of the biggest challenges retailers face is having legacy single-use edge implementations which can each end up heterogeneous even within their own usage silo across fleets of stores. This creates IT complexity and data silos. So how can retailers transform the shopping experience while achieving profitable growth with simplified, open edge technologies? Here are a few ways.

Related story: What 5G and Edge Computing Mean for Retail

1. Infusing Intelligence to Drive Brick-and-Mortar Transformation

Unified commerce experiences are the new retail frontier. When a shopper visits a store, they expect the same convenience and consistency of an online experience. It’s not just about unified inventory management. The customer journey into a physical store often starts and ends in the digital realm. All channels, portals and data must behave in concert. With edge computing, delivering a seamless experience across digital and physical stores can be made possible. Retailers can implement sensors and other devices at the edge or in-store and analyze the resulting real-time data for intelligent business decision making. An example of this is being able to send personalized in-store discounts or promotions to customers based on their past behaviors. From automated checkout in grocery stores to inventory analytics that ensure shelves are always stocked (and shelf inventories are accurately reflected online), edge technologies are helping to unify physical and online shopping experiences.

Data captured from the edge can power immersive experiences such as augmented reality; personalized, interactive or instructive displays for product education; and cashier-less, autonomous checkout speeding customers through their journey. Applying insights from both online and in-store shopping behavior also provides retailers opportunities to increase basket size with personalized recommendations and promotions. From an operational standpoint, aggregating these individual shopping behaviors and patterns empowers retailers to improve customer satisfaction, optimize inventory and shrink unnecessary costs.

2. Meeting Health and Safety Standards to Safeguard Customer Well-Being

On top of driving sales, retailers must adhere to superior health and safety standards to ensure safe shopping and a healthy workforce. Tasks like monitoring PPE compliance, oven temperatures, detecting spills, and meeting food safety data requirements (e.g., cold chain tracking) can be menial and prone to human error. Edge computing can be a critical tool in managing the health and safety of consumers and staff, from warning employees to wear appropriate protective gear in sensitive spaces to preventing waste and even managing checkout lane queue length.

3. Optimizing Logistics and Supply Chain Processes

Accelerated by recent global events, there’s been an absolute explosive rise of on-demand delivery services for retail. Quick last mile delivery services like Postmates and Instacart prove that convenience and speed of delivery to customers is a necessary capability for meeting customer expectations. Even retailers that have developed lean, optimized fulfillment operations can find this acceleration challenging as customer orders pour in through multiple channels simultaneously and the timeline for covering inventory errors erodes to minutes.

Leveraging edge infrastructure, brick-and-mortar retailers can achieve an accurate read on inventory levels across the entire operation, including distribution centers, stores and fulfillment centers. This enables retailers to offer new services for customers such as buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS); buy online, pick up at curb (BOPAC); or buy in-store, ship to home. Retailers can even leverage their local stores as micro-fulfillment centers for rapid deployment of online orders, ultimately improving delivery times and options for customers. However, accurate forecasting has often proved difficult. Edge computing and solutions such as computer vision and radio frequency identification (RFID) can help drive supply chain visibility and optimize logistics processes. Increasing accuracy and implementing more automation throughout the distribution chain improves inventory sharing across sites to handle the peaks and troughs of business.  

4. Improving the Bottom Line Through Cost Optimization

Edge computing can support retailers in automating repeatable processes and improve store operations, saving them time and money. For example, conversational artificial intelligence can enable drive-through retailers to offer personalized menus based on prior purchases and improve the accuracy of the customer’s order, helping businesses stay open when faced with labor shortages. An intelligent scheduling system integrated with a store’s camera network could automatically direct store associates to checkout lanes to reduce congestion, clean up a spill or restock an item once stores are bare. Computer vision can even guide associates to customers who appear in need of assistance, alleviating the dreaded walk-out.

The future of retail is about connecting the digital and physical worlds. To deliver an optimal customer experience, retailers must make a strategic shift in processes and technology capabilities. The opportunities to innovate with data by delivering real-time insights at the edge are endless, but organizations need the right infrastructure in place. Embracing an open architecture that secures and consolidates the edge can drive exceptional results.