Reimagine Your Network

December 11th, 2018 by

Savvy retailers are turning “brick-and-mortar” stores into a competitive advantage, blending digital technology with traditional merchandising. From enabling personalized item recommendations using tracked buying preferences to streamlining purchases with mobile check-out, digital technology increasingly delivers a superior customer experience, driven by real-time, secure data. According to a recent Incisiv study we co‑sponsored with BRP Consulting, “digital already directly drives more than a third of all retail sales, and it further influences a much higher percentage.”

One challenge: Success with in-store digital technologies demands robust, resilient network connectivity. Over the next twelve months, retailers are posed for 2x growth in digital retail technology focused on mobile enablement such as mobile POS, in-store mode for mobile apps and customer Wi-Fi among others. Legacy retail networks don’t have the bandwidth and reliability needed to enable the new retail experience – an issue compounded by this new wave of tech investment. To take full advantage of the technology available, retailers will need to reimagine their network to gain new levels of performance, capacity, and reliability.

Reimagine your retail network

New imperatives for retail networking

Leveraging cloud applications for stores and distribution centers is an essential starting point for delivering valuable data that is both real-time and uniform across all stores and applications. Beyond this basic requirement, retail networks need to be simple, fast, agile, reliable, and secure.

  • Simple. Managing disparate networks and traditional phone lines is both complex and costly – and unnecessary given today’s technology. A simple, unified environment across the enterprise speeds the ability to update capabilities as new and enhanced technologies come to market. Retailers that enlist a network partner to proactively help manage their network, further benefit by allowing their resources to be focused on key value drivers and growth-oriented initiatives.
  • Fast. Giving customers and employees new apps and systems that run at a sluggish pace is a surefire recipe for frustration. Seamless bandwidth and instant connectivity are must-haves.
  • Agile. Centralized network management and real-time application prioritization ensures solid performance, reduces store-level IT requirements, and speeds the turn-up of new sites and capabilities. Empowering retailers with the visibility to see the performance of their applications in real time enables the flexibility to choose the best connection and bandwidth allocation for each application, ensuring optimal performance.
  • Reliable. Rapidly adding digital technologies can quickly strain bandwidth, and outages of any kind, can grind business to a screeching halt. Retail networks must deliver steady connectivity to ensure business runs smoothly and accommodates both near-term and future technology additions.
  • Secure. When the store converges with the digital world, the network becomes a lifeline and the data it carries, treasure to be guarded. Retailers must protect and prevent damage to their most valuable assets, and isolate and respond to network threats the instant they appear.

Added bonus: Implementing an advanced network can significantly reduce operational costs, creating a strong business case for an upgrade. It does not take a strong imagination to see how a solid network foundation will accelerate business and position retailers for any applications the future may hold in store.

Learn more at NRF

To further explore the retail network of the future, be sure to visit booth 4609 at NRF 2019. Experts from Windstream Enterprise and retail consulting firm BRP Consulting will be on hand to answer questions regarding your specific needs and best options for satisfying them – the real starting point toward reimagining your network for the new competitive landscape of retail.

Combating DDoS Attacks: How to Keep Your Retail Network Secure

October 10th, 2018 by

Thanks to PCI DSS, the retail industry has done a remarkable job of mobilizing to protect customers’ cardholder data. While widespread compliance can’t completely keep the cyber thieves at bay, PCI DSS unquestionably has mitigated their capacity to steal cardholder data.

That’s great for consumers. It’s now time for retailers to also step up their defenses against the greatest cyberthreat to core retail operations: the distributed denial‑of‑service (DDoS) attack, in which hyper-aggressive, orchestrated streams of incoming traffic from multiple sources effectively shut down a network, impeding operations.

According to The Standish Group, network outages cost retailers an average of $4,700 per minute. Unfortunately, DDoS attacks and the outages they cause are escalating rapidly.

Retailers without DDoS attack protection

DDoS attack protection

According to the Ponemon Institute, DDoS attacks accounted for 22% of unplanned outages in 2016, up from a mere 3% in 2010. Retailers, a favorite target, are particularly at risk of negative impact from revenue loss and damaged customer perception.

Minimizing that risk requires continuous monitoring, speedy detection, and immediate response as soon as possible after a DDoS attack begins. For retailers, DDoS attack protection is a must-have for business continuity and resiliency, an essential element of a complete security strategy.

DDoS mitigation is a highly specialized form of network security and many retailers have discovered that the most effective protection comes from DDoS mitigation service providers. A well-rounded service can identify gaps for remediation, address those gaps with added network security, and provide ongoing monitoring and extremely rapid response – thwarting DDoS attacks before they rack up sufficient downtime to cause a major hit to retail revenue and brand reputation.

Is your retail operation sufficiently protected?

Virtually every retailer in the U.S. takes the necessary steps to ensure PCI DSS compliance, yet most view DDoS attack protection more as a secondary concern. The rapid escalation in DDoS attacks indicate a clear need to treat them as a primary threat as well. Those who do give the threat of DDoS attacks the attention it deserves are often those who have already been hit, and hard. It doesn’t have to be that way. Thorough, proactive DDoS mitigation and PCI DSS compliance measures are far preferable to dealing with the fall-out after the fact.

Just ask any retailer who has been there.

SD-WAN is Fast Becoming a Retail Network Necessity

July 18th, 2018 by

If you’re not already well-acquainted with our recommendations regarding advanced retail networking, it all boils down to this: Any multi-store retailer not already moving to software defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) has some serious catching up to do.

That’s actually true of pretty much every distributed enterprise. The rapid growth in data, apps, and connected “things” all contribute to an escalating thirst for bandwidth to carry traffic destined for the Internet and public clouds.

The entire networking industry is gearing up; DC FutureScape estimates that 60% to 70% of all software, services, and tech spend will be cloud-based by 2020. Yet traditional networks were designed for much simpler demands, connecting to the Internet at headquarters or data center locations through a centralized firewall. Traditional connectivity options can’t handle today’s bandwidth explosion, and centralized firewalls can’t avoid congestion in the face of such new demands.

All of this puts unprecedented stress on the WAN. Consider:

  • A recent survey found that enterprises in general are doubling their bandwidth needs every 18 months. That calls for alternatives to traditional connectivity options, such as T1’s, as their cumbersome deployment makes it difficult to keep up. Additionally, the high cost of connectivity upgrades in traditional networking strains budgets, limiting the amount of bandwidth companies can afford.
  • Alternatives to traditional connectivity must satisfy business needs for uptime. An Aberdeen Group study found that unplanned downtime costs enterprises $260K per hour. The ability to transmit higher volumes of data won’t prove workable if downtime leads to more losses in revenue and productivity.
  • Finally, there’s transparency. A Deloitte survey found 78% of enterprise CIOs are saying they can’t guarantee app performance, leaving them in the dark regarding performance and bandwidth utilization. It’s a guessing game whether adding the next app is the straw that will break the camel’s back. What CIOs need is real-time control to prioritize critical and latency‑sensitive apps.

Enter SD-WAN

Virtually every new technology is created to solve a problem that can no longer be satisfied by older technologies. And every new technology that succeeds in going mainstream does so by proving its ability to satisfy emerging needs in full. That is certainly the case with SD-WAN.

IDC estimates that sales of SD-WAN equipment grew from just $225 million in 2015 to $1.19 billion in 2017, and should reach more than $8 billion by 2021. The reason for such explosive growth: Enterprises are switching to SD-WAN “to resolve challenges created by increasing cloud, mobile, big data and analytics traffic.”

SD-WAN’s success in resolving those challenges stems from three core advantages over traditional connections:

  • 60% improvement in cloud-based application performance
  • 10x bandwidth at half the cost, leveraging broadband
  • Up to 100% uptime guarantee through using multiple, diverse connections

In addition to those inherent advantages, SD-WAN serves as a platform for other network services such  as UCaaS (unified communications as a service); managed network security; and secure, private, dedicated access to cloud service providers, offering a direct connection for payment card processing.

The unique needs of retail

While enterprises in general benefit from the shift to SD-WAN, retail faces several unique dynamics that make adoption especially imperative.

  • Shoppers increasingly expect a unified on-line/off-line experience.
  • Enhancements to the off-line experience that customers most appreciate are primarily network-driven.
  • These dynamics increasingly are reshaping the customer experience.
  • That reshaping is transforming retail at warp speed.

Every retail executive is acutely aware that continuing to do what we’ve always done will no longer do. We’ve seen so many storied brands fade, passed up by more forward‑looking retailers committed to getting ahead of the curve.

Those who succeed do so for a variety of reasons, as no two retail enterprises are exactly the same. But nearly all retailers who are succeeding in the transformation have one thing in common: They embrace advanced networking and all that it enables. If you’re not quite there yet, there’s still time to catch up.

The Mobile Retail Revolution: Top Mobile Trends Transforming the Retail Space

July 10th, 2018 by

It may just feel like you’ve entered a futuristic sci-fi movie with some of the latest retail tech trends exploding on the market. Retailers across the board are upping the ante to deliver a more personalized and pleasurable shopping experience to differentiate against competition, and attract and retain a new generation of clientele.

The impact of mobile technology on behavior

Mobile technology has impacted all areas of our lives, from how, when, and the degree to which we communicate/interact, consume/share information, down to what we purchase and how. Mobile technology combines two very powerful things that effect our everyday behavior: unlimited and access.

Given our present mobile existence and constant connection to people, products and brands, shopping behaviors are changing. The upshot? Mobile technology is presenting a win-win scenario for retailers and consumers alike. With its ubiquity and ease-of-use, mobile capabilities are offering retailers tremendous opportunities to appeal to customers, and customers to take control of their own retail experiences, reaping the benefits of more convenient and enjoyable ways to shop.

So, what are some of the biggest mobile retail trends and how are they impacting the industry?

Virtual Reality (VR)

Although not completely new, this emerging technology is creating quite the buzz because of its ability to make virtual brand experiences more readily accessible, eliminating prior limitations of space and time. A great example of this is Volvo’s Reality App, which enabled potential customers to test drive a new SUV model that was not yet available via their smartphone. Offering a realistic experience, the app provided users with 360 degree views of the interior of the vehicle and simulated a test drive through various panoramic scenes. The result? The first edition of Volvo’s XC90 model sold out in under two days and the app was downloaded more than 40,000 times. Another retailer approaching VR with the ultimate convenience in mind, is Neiman Marcus. It’s visual search app, ‘Snap. Find. Shop.’ allows customers to snap photos of apparel, accessories and shoes they like and it’s smart image recognition serves as a personal shopper, instantly finding similar products available. VR’s unique ability to provide a complete immersion shopping experience is expected to reduce returns, lower marketing costs and provide retailers with more efficient data. We will see more retailers continuining to build VR into their shopping journeys.

Augmented Reality (AR)

While not as immersive as VR, AR is providing retailers with an effective way to bring in-store experiences of “trying on” products and services into the homes of consumers via their mobile device. In addition to giving retailers the ability to reach those who are not physically in their store, AR is providing customers with the opportunity to examine products more closely and get a realistic vision of what they will look like in their homes or on their body, before making a purchase. Retailers like Anthropologie, created an app to give shoppers detailed views of furniture in different colors, fabrics and lighting. The same is holding true in fashion with apps like Converse’s Sampler which enables shoppers to virtually try on shoes at home, with the added ability to seamlessly share pictures with friends/family for validation before making their selection. The use of AR on mobile devices is providing retailers with an easy and interactive way to engage with, and reach targeted audiences, a likely approach we will see more of.

Unified commerce and mobile payments

VR and AR are becoming popular, but equipping associates with mobile technology/mobile pay is becoming critical to the shopping journey as well. Mobile devices are driving a shift in retail to unified commerce, blurring previous divisions between online and offline shopping experiences. According to Boston Retail Partners (BRP) survey of  top retailers in North Amererica, 81% of retailers will deploy unified commerce platforms to support commerce across stores, mobile users and the web by the end of 2020. Mobility is essential to competing in an omnichannel environment, with more than a third of smartphone users worldwide estimated to use their mobile phone to pay for a purchase at a physical point of sale (POS). However, payment security continues to be a concern. Merchants that are utilizing retail IT solutions to migrate their store applications to the cloud are alleviating some security risks by eliminating the storage of customer data at the store-level. Additionally, mobile payments are enabling purchases to be made via smartphones using tokenization, providing an extra level of security.

In-store mobility

Mobility in-store is something we will see more of from shoppers and associates alike. Consumers will continue to use their mobile phones in-store to research products, read reviews, compare prices, and increasingly, to pay for in-store purchases. Arming
in-store associates with mobile tablets, phones, headsets and handheld scanners provides retailers with the opportunity to streamline operational functions and improve the CX, such as inventory, price validation and speedier checkout processes. Most noteably, enabling the mobile point of sale (POS),  which allows customers to make a purchase on the spot, without needing to wait in line. According to BRP’s 2018 POS/Customer Engagement Survey, the use of mobile devices and tablets for associates and customers will continue to increase, with an anticipated decrease in the use of traditional PC’s and POS terminals. The survey confirms that 42% of retailers currently offer mobile solutions for associates, with 78% planning to offer these tools within three years.

Strengthening your mobile retail strategy

Pew Research Center reports that 77% of Americans own smartphones. Despite the increasingly connected prospect pool, many retailers are still playing catching up with respect to their mobile strategies. According to BRP, the current priorities and initiatives for retailers are to facilitate a seamless experience across all channels. Mobile is critical to this initiative. As retailers strive to deliver a more differentiated CX, focusing on mobile retail strategies that offer convenience and simplify shopping journeys will be key.

Although there are many exciting mobile trends surfacing, the underlying network technology and infrastructure that retailers have in place becomes a critical part of the equation. To take full advantage of the mobile technology available, retailers need to overcome limitations with network availability, WiFi, security and mobile infrastructure. Enlisting the right solutions will ensure retailers benefit from the scalability and agility that a cloud-based unified commerce can provide.

Curated Shopping Further Elevates the Retail WAN

May 24th, 2018 by

The retail transformation that began with online shopping is entering a new phase, with consumer demand for convenience pushing curated shopping into the mainstream.

The many reasons consumers shop online – immediate access to large inventories, the ability to more easily compare prices, the ability to shop at any hour – are ultimately about saving time. With no driving to shops, finding a parking spot, and physically navigating stores in search of what’s desired, online shopping is convenience without precedent. Retailers who excel at delivering a great online customer experience have a distinct competitive edge over those who operate at a lower level.

Over the past few years, a new class of innovative retailers are taking that time-saving convenience to a higher level with curated shopping. The best curated shopping sites are the online equivalent of having a personal stylist who knows each customer’s tastes, proven likes and dislikes, and preferred spending levels taking care of the shopping process.

One of the best-known is Stitch Fix, which employs an army of remotely located fashion experts. The customer initiates the process by visiting the Stitch Fix website, filling out a detailed style profile, and picking a delivery date. Stylists then select a clothing assortment for a “Fix” sent to the customer, who can try items on at home, keep items of interest, and return the rest at no charge.

It’s a roaring success. In its Oct. 2017 IPO filing, Stitch Fix listed sales of $977 million for fiscal 2017. At the time of this writing, Stitch Fix’s market capitalization is $2.067 billion. And this is just one player in a fast-growing retail category.

A shopping movement made for data analytics

The success of manually curated shopping has driven the inevitable rise of automated curation, powered by data analytics. The growing shift from brick-and-mortar to online shopping has given retailers tremendously valuable data sets, including footprints of individual customers’ shopping habits and preferences.

Given sufficient data, analytics engines are amply capable of performing the same tasks that remote stylists perform today for Stitch Fix, and with much more ready scalability. As retailers amass greater amounts of digital breadcrumbs, analytics solutions are more accurate at predicting and delivering satisfying curated shopping baskets for its customer base. Automated bots can create a lifelike experience that is fully informed by purchase histories and demonstrated preferences.

Impact on the WAN

The transformation of retail to digital dynamics – online shopping, curated shopping, mobile shopping, and shopping by voice – places merchant WANs at the center of retail business. The need for retail bandwidth is increasing at an accelerated pace. Any retailer that has experienced a significant outage knows all too well that the resulting losses in revenue, internal productivity, and customer satisfaction can be devastating.

These dynamics are hastening the end of traditional wide area networking, and platforms that were never designed to perform at such a high level of data delivery and reliability are being quickly retired in favor of software-defined WANs. Retailers that have already transitioned to SD-WAN are now enjoying far greater operating efficiency, high availability and bandwidth, new levels of visibility and control, and unprecedented agility than those still waiting to convert.

Retailers that have not yet made significant progress in pursuing SD-WAN should accelerate their efforts. The transformation of retail is moving full steam ahead. Those who are unprepared from a network perspective will be left at the station.

The Role of the WAN in Enabling Retail Analytics

May 15th, 2018 by

The most recent annual Merchandise Planning Survey from retail business and IT consulting firm BRP contains especially interesting data points regarding retail data.

Among the more than 500 top North American retailers surveyed, the #1 planning priority is “Improve analytics” (36%), which is trailed closely by “Better integration of actionable customer data into planning activities” (31%). These two priorities point to the realization that retailers are now sitting on massive amounts of data on their customers – and in order to drive retail transformation, they urgently need to put that data to use.

Top Planning Priorities for North American Retailers

BRP Consulting 2017 Merchandise Planning Survey

Source: BRP Consulting 2017 Merchandise Planning Survey

Regarding “Improve analytics,” BRP’s report says, “Analytics has received much recognition in the industry, but there still appears to be a marked delay in the integration and unification of business information enterprise-wide…. Insight into customer demand, price sensitivity, reaction to promotions, demographics and more are key to drive merchandise plans and actions that maximize profitability.”

In examining the closely related “Better integration of actionable customer data,” the report says, “Knowing the customer better than the competition empowers retailers to create better assortments, personalized promotions and marketing campaigns to drive sales and enhance customer loyalty. The ability for retailers to understand their customers, predict what they want to purchase, and even shape their buying behavior is now driving the need for better analytics.”

Artificial intelligence is coming to retail in a big way

Leveraging customer data in merchandise planning is a job for artificial intelligence (AI). Retailers already have the data. What they lack is the manpower it would take to mine it all for patterns and predictive intelligence – even as the mountains of data continue to grow.

This isn’t a job for people. Taking this on is a job for machine intelligence. When retailers say they need to “Improve analytics” and “Better integrate customer data into planning,” they are signaling the intention to incorporate AI engines into their planning infrastructure.

And that takes us to where WE come in.

Running at AI speed requires a new networking approach

Because major retail operations cover expansive geographic footprints, applying AI to retail customer data requires networks that can gather and analyze data from all locations, and deliver analytics outcomes back to those same widely disparate locations; and all with lightning speed. That can only be done with network infrastructure that supports collection at point of sale and processing in the cloud, in a way that supports cost efficiency while delivering high availability and bandwidth, and exceptional operational and information agility.  All of which is beyond what traditional enterprise networks were designed to provide.

It’s the kind of new networking need that has caused so many enterprises – in excess of 40%, according to IDC – to have already started to move to SD-WAN (software defined wide area networks), with more than 30% planning to follow suit within a year. The advantages of SD-WAN compared to traditional distributed network technology are tailor-made to address the challenges facing retail, including:

  • 60% improvement in cloud-based application performance
  • 10X the bandwidth at half the cost by using broadband
  • 100% uptime by leveraging multiple, diverse active-active connections

For retailers that aren’t already well down that path, the time is now to prepare your enterprise network for AI – starting with a very close examination of SD-WAN. Working with a network provider with deep experience in both SD-WAN and accelerating retail transformation, and enabling cloud based analytics and artificial intelligence, can make the move smooth and easy.

Happy to discuss as always if interested. I’d also suggest checking out the study mentioned above from BRP – their 2017 Retail Merchandise Planning Survey Report – which delivers a lot of additional insight, as well.

IT Leaders: Are you making time to innovate? You should.

April 6th, 2018 by

The formula for achieving success in the current always-on, always-evolving business environment begins and ends with innovation. It’s a prerequisite for staying ahead of the competition and customer needs. Likewise, constantly evolving/transforming your business model to align with customer buying behavior and expectations is the new normal.

Despite this reality, delivering on innovation remains a challenge. 

Why is that? Why are some companies better at innovation than others? And how are some able to deliver on innovation and digital transformation so much faster than others?

The answers are twofold and quite simple in concept:

  • Successful companies leverage technology to drive innovation.
  • Successful companies allocate resources to innovation.

Signs innovation is a priority in your organization

When we talk with IT leaders, it’s clear most understand IT has become highly strategic and the role they play has evolved accordingly. But it’s also clear there are wide gaps between those organizations where IT is helping lead or deliver IT and business transformation and those where they’re simply along for the ride.

Sometimes the differences are easy to spot, and there are clear signs an IT group is “able to innovate.” That they have BOTH the time and resources to apply to it, as well as support from leadership to pursue it. I’d break these signs down further as follows:

  • Dedicated leadership: When we walk into a meeting with IT people and the Director of Innovation is involved, it’s a clear sign innovation is alive and well. If they happen to report to the CIO; even better. By the way, if you’re a CIO and you’ve been thinking about this, move quickly because it’s possible leaders in other areas are thinking the same thing.
  • Cross-functional engagement: If the CIO’s invited a few peers (from operations or marketing, for example) that’s another sign the IT team is an innovation leader within the company.
  • Passion for their business: They (IT) have a clear understanding of, and like to share and discuss, their business initiatives. This often comes with a clear disdain for typical vendor pitches.
  • An open mind: They’re interested in technology options that can help accomplish their objectives, and transform how they do things, and are open to ideas and discussion vs. a typical RFP-style response.
  • Shifting resources: Internal IT resources are shifting from day-to-day maintenance (“keeping the lights on”) and they’re looking for partners that can provide managed solutions to help make the shift.
  • A solid cloud strategy: Finally, they’re moving enterprise apps/services to the cloud to be more agile and execute on their vision more quickly than the competition.

Where does your IT team fall in the innovation mix? 

The important question to ask is whether you see any of these innovation signposts in your organization.

Does your IT team have time to devote to innovation and digital transformation? Does your executive management team support IT’s role in advancing this agenda?

If the answer’s yes, you’re on your way. Your team’s position has become more and more strategic, putting it in a strong position to take on the innovation agenda. Good timing, since you’ll find a range of new technologies, accelerated cloud adoption and a shift in resource allocation to help you deliver on it.

“There’s no better time than the present to put innovation on the IT agenda.”

If the answer is no, it’s not too late to start. Even the most innovative organizations still report spending a high concentration of their time on core IT functionality. For example, Salesforce Research showed agendas such as increasing employee productivity at the top of IT’s to-do list. Yet the ROI of an innovation and IT transformation agenda can be far bigger, with data, such as this from Watermark, showing organizations that innovate in customer experience (CX) outperform the S&P 500 by 35%, while laggards trail by 45%.

It’s time to shift priorities towards digital innovation   

At a recent conference, a speaker said the formula for business success is A) picking the right technologies that have a positive impact on your customer experience and B) implementing them faster than your competition.

We couldn’t agree more. That said, there’s no better time than the present to put innovation and digital transformation on the IT agenda, and to get moving, you need to start to shift. Shift to the cloud, shift resources to innovation and shift to vendors that become partners in enabling your transformation. Make the time for shifts like that now and there are no limits to where you can go from there.

NRF 2018 Confirms: Retail is Transforming at Warp Speed

February 19th, 2018 by

As expected, unified commerce was a dominant topic at NRF 2018 – and it went well beyond speculation. Retail leaders who attended gained a greater sense not only of the importance of a seamless omnichannel customer experience, but also of the approaches and technologies that make it achievable.

We also saw a highly enthusiastic turnout for the Exhibitor Big Ideas session titled “Retail is changing at warp-speed – accelerate the transformation of your business,” presented by Windstream, national retailer Zumiez, and retail management consulting firm and partner, BRP. For those who couldn’t make it, here are key takeaways regarding what lies ahead.

Curated shopping

The wealth of online choices facing consumers cries out for simplification, and curated shopping will be an important element. Consider Stitch Fix, which aims to re-invent shopping “the way women really want to shop.” The customer fills out a profile, picks a delivery date, and receives five clothing and accessory items matched to taste, budget, and lifestyle – then tries the items at home, buys what she wants, and returns the rest. Success for this model depends on high-performance data analytics and predictive technology that enable effective matching by an automated “stylist.”

Leveraging mobile

Retail has moved beyond viewing mobile as a distinct channel, as leading-edge brands pursue augmented reality (AR) apps that directly enhance “real world” shopping. Two great AR example are the Ikea Place app, which lets customers virtually place furniture in their homes, and Lowe’s Vision app, which customers use to create shopping lists and then easily locate items within a Lowe’s store – leveraging breakthrough technology from Apple and Google, respectively.

Shopping by voice

Amazon and Google are aggressively pursuing voice in consumer electronics with their Echo and Home devices. Both succeed in simplifying the shopping process, and consumers are responding enthusiastically. According to Adobe, 22% of owners of these devices now shop by voice, and voice-shopping sales doubled in 2017. With consumers adopting smart speaker devices in fast-growing numbers, we can expect shopping by voice to become a prominent component of unified commerce.

Self-driving cars and autonomous fulfillment

When most people think of self-driving cars, they envision people-movers. Not so with Amazon, which has mastered autonomous delivery of goods within warehouses – and now has an eye on deploying self-driving cars to deliver packages to shoppers’ doors. It amounts to using advanced technology to streamline the customer experience all the way to its conclusion. Amazon hasn’t formally announced plans yet, but if it all proves workable, others will surely follow, and self-driven fulfillment will take a major bite out of “snail mail” delivery.

You can see the possibilities when you combine the above takeaways. In the not too distant future I will be able to order a new shirt to go with my blue suit and my AI stylist bot picks it out and an autonomous vehicle delivers to my door.

Retail will thrive – and increasingly run on advanced networking

While some in the industry have worried that all of these changes point to “retail apocalypse,” what it really means is that retail is constantly improving through the realization of advances driven by the need to deliver a superior customer experience. That experience will increasingly depend on leveraging technology to unify  all channels, from browsing through fulfillment.

This will all depend on advanced networking, with far more traffic destined for the internet and public clouds. As it is, the network can either be a bottleneck for retailers or it can be the tool for this rapid retail transformation. T1s that were meant simply to provide internet connections through a centralized firewall won’t handle the coming retail bandwidth explosion, and centralized firewalls won’t be able to avoid congestion. Rapidly escalating requirements for bandwidth, security, and maximum up-time will increasingly drive retail traffic to networking designed and optimized for the cloud.

To dive further into what’s happening, please see the new 2018 POS/Customer Engagement Survey just released by BRP, our NRF Big Ideas co-presenter. It’s a fascinating look at how retailers are faring in their quest to ensure that the key pillars defining the required customer experience are in place to deliver unified commerce.

The Trends Shaping Retail in 2018

January 11th, 2018 by

It’s hard to know which is the chicken and which is the egg in today’s evolving retail environment. Is consumer buying behavior being influenced by the ubiquity of mobile technology, or are consumer behaviors changing how companies design our devices and/or digital experiences to accommodate those behaviors?

In the end, all that really matters is that we live in a world of immediacy where information and communication are exchanged in real-time, and in the mind of the consumer, what they see, need and desire should be attainable with the same ease—regardless of technology or channel. Their experience must match—and ideally exceed—their expectations, and that requires acquiring and applying intimate knowledge of each customer based on individual behaviors and preferences to create a truly one-of-a-kind personalized experience.

Sound too good to be true? Not for those retailers who prepare for that elevated experience with agile technology and new processes that adapt to current and future customer expectations.

Rising customer expectations continue to rule the day

Customer-centricity continues to be the driver in 2018, and retailers who deliver a truly customized experience will create a market differentiator that will be hard to beat. Data from industry experts at BRP Consulting indicates that the following five customer centric trends will continue to shape the retail shopping experience in 2018 and beyond.

  • Personalized shopping. With multiple ways to shop—online, mobile and brick-and-mortar—retailers can collect valuable customer data 24/7, enabling them to continually refine and create a unique experience by identifying the customer as soon as they enter the store. 70% of retailers indicate customer identification is their top customer engagement priority, up from 62% last year.
  • Seamless experiences. Seeing each channel as separate from the whole, or simply bridging them via Omni-channel technology is not a viable long-term strategy and that’s why 71% of retailers plan to have a unified commerce platform by the end of 2019. Retailers must move toward a model that serves customers wherever they are, in whatever channel they’re using, connecting the dots between them to keep them moving within the retailer’s brand ecosystem, while each channel works in harmony to nurture more sales and engagement.
  • Curated selection. Using customer information, retailers can create exclusive product lines or assortments based on specific tastes or interests. Personal stylists (think Blue Apron for meals, Birchbox for cosmetics and Stitch Fix for clothing) use customer-created profiles (likes, dislikes, preferences, budget) to virtually read the mind of the customer, make product selections for them and arrange for the items to be sent directly to the customer before they specify them.
  • Same-day delivery. When Amazon announced the idea of a drones delivering packages in 2013, we all thought the idea was a bit ‘out there’. Four years later, it doesn’t seem unreasonable at all. Certainly, consumer appetite for instant delivery has only increased, driving the number of retailers offering same-day delivery to triple in the past year to meet elevated customer expectations.
  • Voice-assisted ordering. Retailers, and especially grocers, are embracing voice shopping and search driven by the prevalence of voice driven assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home and even Apple’s Siri. Walmart, Best Buy, Target are just a few of the retailers who see the value of this technology to increase simplicity and convenience. Retailers need to accelerate their plans to integrate their offerings with voice-assisted technology to meet this demand.

Disruptive technology is changing the experience

Customer familiarity and comfort with emerging technologies is growing with increased exposure in the marketplace. If innovation isn’t a strong component of your strategy, now is the time to become knowledgeable and incorporate technologies that will increasingly shape the retail CX in 2018 and beyond.

  • Artificial intelligence. Within three years, 45% of retailers plan to utilize AI to enhance the customer experience. AI offers the ability to optimize data gathered on customers and their preferences to personalize their shopping experience.
  • Augmented and virtual reality. These technologies are familiar to consumers who readily see using AR and VR to enable digital changing rooms where they can try on multiple outfits with the swipe of a finger, or find out more information about a product, or even where and how a product was made.
  • Unified Commerce. Integrating online and offline systems and inventory  enables customer-pleasing innovations like order anywhere, ship to/pick up anywhere, among many others.
  • RFID, IoT, geofencing, digital displays and kiosks, autonomous fulfillment, and much more.

Retailers: Make 2018 the Year the Network Strikes Back

December 22nd, 2017 by

Witness the power of the network. Over the past 20 years it (in the form of the global Internet) transformed retail. Shifting power to agile online innovators. And leaving traditional retail behind.

But suddenly, the shoe is on the other foot. A new generation of networked innovations is giving retail a chance to leverage the power of the network to strike back. And to deliver a customer experience online retail can’t touch. Literally.

But you’ll need to move fast. If there is one thing we’ve all come to learn, if you’re not paying attention to what is going on in the retail space, someone more agile and unencumbered by legacy anything is going to come along and create disruption.

Leverage the network to accelerate retail transformation

While tech companies have been making constant progress to deliver more speed and agility to their established brick and mortar customers – and the majority of those customers have steadily improved their own online efforts – the limitations of entrenched legacy infrastructure have not been easy to escape.

Central to the challenge are the networks connecting it all together. Ironic, right? The very same vehicle that enabled the Amazons of the world to clobber once mighty big box giants with a superior CX (customer experience) was also preventing those retailers from leveraging similar customer pleasing technology to catch up.

Then, early this year, SD-WAN showed up, sending a signal things may start to change. For the first time in decades – going literally back to the days when Amazon sold only books! – there’s a new distributed network technology that can deliver the bandwidth, reliability and security needed to put all sorts of new and innovative applications to work at point of purchase. And make today’s highly demanding, fickle, tech loving customers return to the stores they once flocked to.

If that kind of retail transformation sounds interesting to you, then 2018 may be a very happy new year indeed.

Network optimization, check! Customer engagement, check!

While Windstream is obviously in the network business, it’s important to understand that while the network is essential to retail transformation, at its core it’s a platform for retail to start to strike back. What comes next is a range of agile cloud driven tools and technologies that can now be implemented in ways they never could before. Bringing an entire new level of engagement to create the store of the future, and form stronger connections with customers. And get them excited about multisensory, real world, digitally enhanced customer experiences that even the most sophisticated ecommerce player can’t approach.

These include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Unified Commerce systems integrating online and offline systems and inventory and enabling customer pleasing innovations like order anywhere, ship to/pick up anywhere, among many others.
  • Augmented and virtual reality to drive innovations like digital changing rooms where you can try on endless outfits with the swipe of a finger.
  • Real time analytics and artificial intelligence for personalized stylists and offers and curated shopping that make shoppers feel like the most important person in the store.
  • Complete mobility, empowering customers and employees alike, creating a feeling of superior online/offline integration, and getting shoppers in and out fast with mobile checkout.
  • RFID, IoT, geofencing, digital displays and kiosks, autonomous fulfillment, and much more.

Retail transformation: Full speed ahead at NRF 2018

The two most important steps towards retail transformation are 1) develop a plan, and 2) make sure your network is ready to support it.

Our booth at NRF 2018 is an excellent place to begin both parts of this process; we’ll be there with our partners at BRP Consulting. Between us, we can dig into a complete range of issues and challenges relevant to retailers today. And help you plan a network and unified commerce strategy to make 2018 the year your organization turns the tables and leverages the power of the network to accelerate retail transformation. And empower retail to strike back.

See you there!

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