By Ed Durbin
Originally published at VMware Blogs
How many times have you sighed in frustration when a chatbot can’t figure out what you’re asking? How often have you replied angrily to a “do not reply” email address announcing a delayed shipment or that your package is stuck in transit. Your answers to these questions illustrate why in-person shopping experiences remain core to retail businesses, and why online purchases peaked at just 15.7% of all retail sales in 2020.1 Shoppers want a personalized experience where they can interact with the goods they buy and ask real humans real questions. So, if you think that retail technology advancements mean nothing but shiny new websites, think again.
This VMworld, discussions around the technological-driven future of retail took center stage. A common theme emerged. It turns out, leveraging the Edge can give retailers a competitive … edge. Especially when creating an integrated customer experience.
“The Edge is the cusp of where physical meets digital. It is the threshold where businesses can radically transform their retail experience.”Muneyb Minhazuddin, VP of Edge Computing at VMware
Minhazuddin was not the only retail expert to weigh in on how brands can transform their customer experiences through the Edge technology. In fact, VMworld sessions illuminated a number of ideas retailers can take to heart as they consider the next evolution of the shopping experience they offer.
Put tech in the hands of your employees, literally
Forward-thinking retailers are seeking ways to make their employees’ jobs more meaningful. One way they’re freeing up employees’ time is by streamlining repetitive tasks that take away from customer interactions. According to Kevin Willey, an Edge solution architect at VMware, there’s an “absolute need to free up associates’ time in-store to engage with customers and help them with the challenges of that day.” The easiest and most straightforward way to achieve this goal is by adopting technology that fits the unique needs of your business.
For instance, retailers can empower their workforce by providing high-performance access to company resources from any device and any location. Australia Post is one of many successful examples of this approach.
Australia Post recently introduced a pocket-size mobile device each employee carries in-store. The devices combine multiple software and technology features into one. As a result, workers are untethered from the checkout counter and are able to provide customer service on the fly, enhancing the customer experience.
Early employee feedback is extremely positive, according to Ben Llewellyn, technology business partner at Australia Post. Store associates especially love that the mobile device digitizes labels, so they don’t have to. Moreover, the biggest benefit is that employees are free to roam the store to help customers where they are, creating a new retail experience that is enhanced for employees, customers and the business itself.
Customer intimacy requires living on the Edge
The in-store retail experience has always been mediated by technology. Consider a cash register, with an employee sitting behind it.
“The Edge has always been there. What’s different about today is the ability to utilize the Edge to home in on a customer’s preferences or identify the steps they’ve already taken on their journey, speedily deliver services all while adding more value to their in-store retail experience.”Muneyb Minhazuddin, VP of Edge Computing at VMware
Many brick-and-mortar retailers developed a robust integrated business during the pandemic. The resulting services, such as curbside pick-up and delivery, underscored the need for synergy between the digital and physical experiences for customers.
A panel in the 2021 VMworld session, “Retail Edge: Retailers Power New In-Store Experiences With Edge Technology,” identified how technology at the Edge can open opportunities for retailers. Panel members identified three major ways retailers can improve their standing with customers, including:
Creating a more personalized in-store experience
According to Australia Post’s Ben Llewellyn, the only place a customer can have a true personal experience is at a brick-and-mortar retailer: “Here, Edge drives intimacy. Consumers are inundated by thousands of different brands each year. With their attention fractured, smart retailers have identified the need to deliver an in-person retail experience that’s fast, unified and personalized.”
Which aisle do shoppers choose? Which do they skip? What products do they pick up? Which do they walk past? Technology gives businesses the opportunity to continually enhance their in-store experience based on data.
Building long-term customer loyalty
“Customers like interacting with employees and building relationships. This is how you build long-term loyalty. Retailers have the unique advantage to combine the digital and physical”Chaz Cockshoot, global retail solutions architect, VMware.
The in-person shopping experience is where retailers strengthen customer relationships and build brand loyalty. They can more easily achieve these goals by decoupling their retail associates from a static location in-store and instead give them the freedom to meet customers where they are.
Leveraging data to build a more dynamic inventory
On-site data processing allows greater personalized shopping, enhances fraud detection and shrinks shelf space and inventory.
Edge technology allows retailers to capture context locally and enable on-demand production. For example, a local high school football team wins the state championship. A retailer can provide custom, localized inventory with the appropriate monitoring technology.
Drive profit growth by enabling new capabilities
Edge technology not only gives employees opportunities to thrive and shoppers customized experiences, but it also directly impacts business operations.
“It’s more about creating platform where solutions can be quickly deployed, providing the productivity and convenience for the development team to deploy things at the end of the day to an Edge location, being fast in the market, reacting to changes, being closer to the customer, learning more about the customer, at the end of the day, that’s where the benefit comes from.”Heiko Onnebrink, principal architect, Wipro Business Solutions
The correct type of technical architecture will grow as your business expands. You should be able to incrementally enhance it and add the features you need over time. Moreover, a simple, solid Edge architecture only requires a few people to manage it. For instance, METRO.digital employs four people to manage the data center environment they have established.
When it comes to the future of retail, several things are clear. If you invest in the appropriate technology, you’ll save time and money in the long run due to operational optimization. The Edge also helps retailers gather real-time, local data to realize a self-sustaining cycle of continuous improvement. This is why it is so important to star upgrading or reevaluating current tech stacks, now.
Edge technology isn’t just a “shiny new toy.” It’s a foundational technology that can improve your retail business —& and customer experience — top to bottom.
Learn more about VMware’s vast array of resources for retailers that will set you on the right track.