In years past, the word “on-demand” has been used to describe videos or streaming services. However, “on-demand” can now be used to describe the expectations of today’s consumer. Customers today want a shopping experience that is always on, responds in real-time, and gives the most up-to-date information. This has created a scenario in which all parts of a retail operation — from inventory, to point of sale, to delivery and beyond – must be always connected. 

Consequently, there’s now a greater dependency on IoT devices throughout a retail operation, thereby creating the need for strong connectivity powered by a resilient, secure, and easy-to-manage network.

A new customer experience

Although much of the world is 2-3 years removed from the height of the pandemic, the shopping choices that customers have come to expect, and now enjoy, are still widely available. This includes options such as curbside pick-up or the ability to buy an item and pick it up in the store. Another retail practice that is still in effect is same or next-day delivery service for shoppers on items such as groceries, household goods, apparel, or electronics.

Each of these options are only possible when a retail store has a real-time and accurate inventory system. With an unprecedented number of customers shopping online, there’s a growing customer expectation that the information they see about availability is current and correct. The shopping experience in stores is also evolving.

Self-serve checkouts in grocery stores, and more recently, fast-food restaurants, department stores, and even clothing stores started appearing in Australia more than 15 years ago. Department stores are also enhancing the in-store shopping experience with digital signage that highlights the latest deals, virtual assistants that can aid in purchase decisions, and even self-serve checkouts that don’t require scanning.

For many of these retail applications, operating in the background is some sort of AI technology. For example, in inventory, some AI and machine learning solutions learn customers’ shopping patterns and suggest which items the store should have in stock ahead of a particular shopping season. When it comes to digital signage, there are some stores that use AI to predict the best location for certain digital advertisements to produce higher conversion rates. For online shopping, stores may give detailed suggestions to customers based on what they like. These examples show the need for a network that can evolve to meet this new retail landscape.

A resilient network

With this much dependence on connectivity, retailers who trust only a sole, hardwired link will be open to network failure and lack the agility necessary to support these new customer demands. For many retail stores the answer begins with Wireless WAN (WWAN) — or the use of public or private cellular routers or adapters as WAN infrastructure — to create a foundation for resiliency.

According to IDC, almost 1 in 3 retailers say they are investing in enhanced connectivity and edge solutions to power a better employee and customer experience. This investment is likely due to the scalability and flexibility that WWAN provides. For years, WWAN has been used as a failover connection, but this is shifting in today’s retail environments – whether it’s inventory or point of sale, retailers are looking for resilient WWAN for multiple use cases.

Inventory management

For many retailers, “just-in-time” inventory, or JIT, is the inventory method of choice. This allows retailers to only order inventory as needed, eliminating the need to hold expensive inventory for any unnecessary time.

In many cases, IoT devices and scanners are the tools that help streamline the inventory processes. Many retail outlets have Wi-Fi and as retailers invest in more data-driven tools and technologies to help improve efficiencies and customer experiences, they need 5G or 4G to support the bandwidth requirements without typical Wi-Fi contention.  A strategic WWAN approach, providing connectivity at the edge of a warehouse or store, will allow employees to operate necessary inventory devices such as scanners, sensors, and other machinery with dedicated bandwidth to promote that uptime. This same approach can be necessary as you move from a warehouse or back of the store to the front of the store.

Resilient connectivity at the network edge can ensure that everything from Point-of-Sale systems, digital signage and cameras aren’t affected by network downtime. Cameras, in particular, are an important part of providing the latest customer experience. In fact, “the Australian Bureau of Statistics June 2023 report showed a 17 per cent increase in retail theft. In response, supermarkets said they had no choice but to increase security measures to reduce shoplifting. One leading supermarket announced it would be spending more than $40 million in CCTV upgrades, body-worn cameras and other measures.”

However, in many situations, camera use cases extend past security measures. The understanding of shopper traffic patterns, the adequate distribution of staff, and even the influence of purchases are all camera use cases enabled through real time video feeds. Any interruption in feeds could delay a store’s ability to provide a proper customer, or even employee, experience.

In addition to network resilience, network security also materialises as a benefit of a wireless WAN approach, where retailers can leverage certain zero-trust capabilities to segment which networks in the store, and who in the store, has access to certain information. This adds a vital level of security to the on-demand customer experience.

As an alternative to WWAN, certain retailers overseas have also begun taking advantage of private cellular networks (PCN) in their approach to network connectivity, and Australian retailers are likely to follow suit once telecommunications infrastructure is available. A PCN can extend from thousands to hundreds of thousands of feet to create a dedicated, secure area of connectivity. This can be so valuable if stores want to provide resilient connectivity to multiple parts of their inventory operation. In the JIT example mentioned above, it’s important to remember that, while the store drives demand, delivery to the store doesn’t happen if the inventory isn’t available at the warehouse.

Making sure demand is met is possible through a fully connected warehouse that can accurately communicate and receive inventory needs in real time. With a private network, retail outfits have more ownership over the network that will drive everything from inventory requests, item tracking, and other warehouse logistics. This dedicated bandwidth can, again, help with cameras at a warehouse that are important for loss prevention and worker safety and inventory scanners that are vital to their inventory management system.  

“Click and collect” or curbside pick-up saw great success in supporting the retail experience during COVID. In fact, consumers loved it so much that retailers have had to learn to support this on their network permanently. What was meant to be a temporary “band-aid” to support pandemic shopping scenarios, has now permanently extended the edge of the network out to parking lots and temporary “pop-up” locations.  Retailers are looking at PCNs as a holistic approach to meet demands both inside and outside of the store to deliver a streamlined, and uninterrupted experience for their customers.

In addition to the shopping and inventory experience, a WWAN or private network approach is also helpful for the IT staff experience. While scalability and security are two major benefits of WWAN or private networks, ease of deployment and management are also two major benefits. Depending on the organisation, there may not be an extensive IT department in-house. Also, since retail is a fast-moving business, the process behind network setup needs to be as easy and quick as possible. The right WWAN or private network solution will allow IT personnel to streamline network setup — with the right scale and security policies — and make it easy to adjust that network when necessary.

A network that can grow with customer expectations

As the needs of today’s consumers evolve, retailers will have to rely more on networks that can scale at the pace of consumer demand. A resilient network can also power agility to meet customers at the additional touchpoints where they want their shopping experience — either in store, curbside, or at home. This means a retail experience that is always on, always fast, always streamlined, and always accurate. Also, with the growing additions of IoT and AI to retail infrastructure, many operations will increasingly become automated — not to mention sensitive customer information has the potential to travel at an unprecedented speed and scale.

In 2024, the answer to today’s customer experience will be a WWAN or later, a private network approach. It will act as the foundation for a network that is secure, scalable, and — with the right solution — easy to manage and deploy.

Cradlepoint will be exhibiting with its partner, MobileCorp at this year’s Retail Fest event in Gold Coast (15-18 April 2024).

Nathan McGregor is senior vice president Asia Pacific at Cradlepoint.