Technology Really Can Save the Sale: Here's How to Make It Work

Ten years ago, the notion of technology saving the sale would have seemed as far-fetched as the self-driving car. Today, sales-saving retail technology with tremendous potential is rushing at the apparel industry, with a dizzying array of possibilities – kiosks, wireless POS, tablets and the truly inventive applications that run on them – promising to boost customer engagement, promote upselling and cement customer loyalty.

Some, perhaps many, of these solutions will prove so winning that 10 years from now, we'll look back and wonder how we did without them. Which solutions those will be is difficult to accurately predict today. One thing is certain, however: The customer-saving solutions that become mainstream will impact the infrastructure needed to run retail operations, and dramatically.

Technology that can save the sale
Forward-looking retailers are well along in their use of digital technology designed to help them improve the customer experience and close more sales. A few examples that are especially applicable to retail apparel include:
  • A nationwide retailer implementing a VOIP system that ensures every incoming call gets a personal answer every time, on an early ring, in every store.
  • A retailer with stores in 26 states deploying mobile POS for quick customer processing when lines begin forming. (This company has a chief digital officer that closely links marketing & IT.)
  • A 32-state retailer accepting phone orders through a virtual call center, with all agents working from their homes. When a customer requests in-store pickup, the order is routed to the appropriate store's POS.
  • A large mattress retailer equipping salespeople on the floor with tablets that they use to check stock and delivery times when a customer, lying on a mattress, appears close to making a choice. This retailer is also looking to extend the system to financing, handing the customer the tablet to fill out the application.
These operations are also using early-stage technologies that are already common in apparel, such as in-store Wi-Fi for comparison shopping and digital signage that advertises current specials – all of which makes the network that supports them more mission-critical than ever.

The network is the store
OK, so the network is not really the store – merchandise, fixtures, personnel, dÉcor, displays, brand recognitions, etc. are pretty important, too – but as digital technology advances beyond payment card acceptance to increasing involvement in enhancing the customer experience, a solidly performing network is critical to realizing a return on digital investments. A slow-to-respond mobile POS or kiosk isn't going to help you to improve customer service.

The fact is, most stores' current network infrastructure will prove inadequate to support devices it was never designed to accommodate. Retailers are already well aware of this; according to the RIS News 2013 Annual Retail Technology Study, "Upgrading store-level bandwidth and infrastructure" was once again seen as a top 10 challenge for retail IT executives over the next three years.

Risk of not upgrading
The earlier examples of retail digital innovation aren't outliers; smart retailers of all stripes are moving quickly to take advantage of the new in-store technologies available to them. There's no question that we're in the early stages of the digital retail revolution, and some of the solutions being trialed will inevitably prove more beneficial than others.

The thing to remember is that leaders in retail are working it, and aggressively. Competitors who are not will be left to play catch-up – and to do their best to compete while they're at it. Those who aren't aggressively evaluating digital retail options may be holding back to see what innovations will prove to be safe choices. They might want to rethink their strategies.

ROI through centralization
Of course, no smart business ever upgrades just for the fun of it, and any pursued course must provide a return on investment to have been worthwhile. More than anything, achieving ROI will require choosing the solutions that are best for your particular operation. And while the business benefits are a key part of making the case for upgrades, showing cost savings in the process can accelerate management buy-in.

Fortunately, new network technologies for connecting headquarters and stores throughout the chain allow retailers to lower their costs without sacrificing performance. In addition, cloud computing allows apparel retailers to more quickly and efficiently upgrade data center infrastructure and applications and services.

Demonstrating a positive ROI on upgrades requires taking a smart approach that aligns IT with the specific needs of the business and of each location. This approach includes five key steps:

Choose the right access type for each store. Some stores may require only a low-bandwidth DSL link. Larger stores won't always need T1; high-speed DSL may deliver ample bandwidth at a fraction of the cost.

Prioritize applications to maximize use of available bandwidth. Through the application of Class of Service (CoS) prioritization, multiple applications can run on the same network without affecting the performance or reliability of POS or other critical services.

Converge voice and data on the data network. Simply put, one network costs less than two. Convergence today is highly flexible, with many models for different needs.

Integrate security. Whatever you do, don't compromise PCI compliance. New in-store technology introduces new opportunities for hackers, and security processes and measures need to be updated accordingly.

Connect to the cloud via private MPLS. Direct connections from stores to cloud providers offer faster and more secure access to data center infrastructure and applications for services such as mobility, disaster recovery and analytics.

Technology in retail success
In the RIS study, Gartner analyst Jeff Roster wrote that "The old adage, failure is not an option, is exactly the wrong recipe for success in the new social/mobile-enabled enterprise. You learn from failure. Retail success has always been through innovation, determination and no small amount of luck."

While those three timeless ingredients – innovation, determination and luck – have always been key to retail success, "innovation" will increasingly be synonymous with "technology" going forward.

Greg Griffiths is vice president of retail solutions for EarthLink Business.
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