At #NRF17, Data Is The New Black

While the most obvious change to the retail landscape over the past few years might be a greater reliance on digital channels to fuel sales, the drive to improve customer satisfaction has really been the defining characteristic of the retail sector's latest evolution.

At NRF Retail's Big Show 2017, improving the customer experience continued to be the major theme, especially when it came to introducing data-driven digital services that will help complement in-store shopping experiences. The consensus on the floor was that data is unofficially “the new black” when it comes to retail, as the key to ensuring good customer service is a grounded knowledge of what customers want and need, when they want it and where they want it — which retailers can only attain by paying close attention.

Although these businesses have had access to a wealth of customer data for years, most have struggled to find ways to put this information to meaningful use. While new applications like virtual fitting rooms and mobile POS systems with full order management, RFID based inventory control, and sensor based analytics will help in applying and using customer data more intelligently, these technologies have the potential to heavily burden any retail network that doesn't leverage hybrid infrastructures as well as application-aware management solutions to assign network capacity intelligently.

Cloud emerging as a solution to retailer's data deluge

While the cloud is a familiar tool businesses across sectors use to help improve IT functionality and lower operational expenditures, many retailers are only just now experiencing a data deluge that calls for a hybrid-cloud network infrastructure.

The cloud enables retailers to scale resources on the fly to meet the increasing demand of digital applications during periods of heavy activity across a larger wide-area network (WAN). This is accomplished using an intelligent WAN solution to direct certain application traffic via the Internet as opposed to congested MPLS connections, keeping these applications up and running regardless of traffic on the larger WAN. This is a must as new connectivity-dependent technologies begin to proliferate. At the same time, the cloud allows retailers to implement and deploy new applications without having to invest in additional network infrastructure.

New sales applications require new training

Staff also has to be considered as part of retail's digital transformation, as all of the new data-driven sales applications discussed at NRF will take some training before sales associates can use them effectively. The problem here is that the very tools associates will need to train to use new sales applications — web-based tutorials, unified communications tools, etc. — will only contribute to straining the WAN if not managed intelligently.

Because both training applications and real-time sales tools need to coexist along the WAN, retail CIOs need to employ an application-aware, software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) optimization tool that can overlay the larger retail network to best direct network capacity to applications at the most appropriate times. That means directing bandwidth toward training tools, for instance, during off-peak shopping hours, or leveraging hybrid connectivity options — including moving workloads to the cloud — to help free up capacity when in-store traffic is high.

Intelligently managing the store network is critical for retailers to engage customers on their terms, which is quickly proving to be the only way existing retailers can adapt and survive in the new omnichannel retail marketplace. This will help merge the digital store with the brick-and-mortar, while giving customers the freedom to interact with brands via the channel that is most convenient for them.

Read more about how InfoVista sees application-aware solutions making retail networks easier to manage despite a wealth of new technologies changing the marketplace.

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