Bringing digital fluidity to bricks-and-mortar retail


By Derrick Harris, Principal Product Marketing Manager, Pivotal Software Inc.

Boarded up windows, closing-down sales and a huge growth in e-commerce retail has seen the UK’s high streets continue to suffer in recent years. 

Although there are many factors to consider when assessing why some shops fail and others thrive, two things are very clear: (1) bricks-and-mortar shopping is far from dead with PwC’s Global Consumer Insights surveyfinding a 4% rise in Brits hitting the high street between 2015 and 2018, and (2) consumer expectations of the in-store experience have evolved significantly in line with the efficiency of their digital counterparts. 

Consumers want a simple, streamlined experience that doesn’t make every trip to the store feel like a gamble - “Will they have what I’m looking for?”, “Will they have it in my size?” and “Will it be in stock?”

Practically speaking, retailers now need to support a range of expectations from seamless collection to an increased use of self-service experience tools. When they do need help finding something or getting advice, they want staff to deliver those answers quickly and accurately.

Efficient employees = happier customers

Many supermarkets are embarking on technological overhaul, covering everything from in-store sensor networks for ensuring produce freshness, to in-store pickup and home delivery. Thanks to the breadth of data collected over years via loyalty programmes, supermarkets are also able to work more personalisation into the customer experience. This includes smart shelving, which can present shoppers with tailored suggestions or deals as they approach. We are likely all familiar with self-service checkouts, even if it seems human intervention is required at least once in every transaction based on my experience. Of course the irony there is the human rarely seems to validate what the automated till has raised.

However, the defining distinction between a trip to the grocery store and shopping online is human interaction, and, perhaps ironically, technology can help here too. For example, checkout-less systems such as the ones currently being made famous by the Amazon Go stores are helping to eliminate queuing for customers. The stores are also equipping store managers with easier, more portable access to data to get them out of the office and onto the shop floor.

The goal of this form of automation is to make workforces (both large and small), associates and managers more efficient, thereby freeing up to create personalised experiences for customers. The less time spent on logistics, logging product information (i.e. sell-by date) and/or ringing up simple orders, the more time can be spent helping customers on a personal level.

Rebuilding operations on a foundation of software in the cloud

Diving deeper, rebuilding software that powers logistics and asset-tracking systems to become more efficient, while also digging out any disruptive or even potentially dangerous buggy code out of mission-critical IT infrastructure isn’t going to make a customer’s feedback form, but it is important for the evolution of their experiences. 

Some supermarkets provide individual employees with mobile devices that give associates and other store personnel access to any number of functions, from inventory to the company website to walkie-talkie capabilities. While stores have made use of bulky and expensive handheld devices for some time, switching to modern application architectures in the cloud enables supermarkets to discontinue clunky and bespoke hand-held terminals and instead adopt more holistic, lightweight mobile devices. No more central server pushing updates to devices via store infrastructure; now, changes can be pushed live via the cloud and delivered directly to the device itself.

A focus on software and a cloud-based platform also provides stores with the added benefit of enhancing overall enterprise agility, helping traditional stores to move at speeds similar to their digital and cloud-native competitors. Taking workloads off a central server, often kept at the retail site, can slash deployment times from weeks to days and relieve pressure on IT teams, who can then use the time recuperated to focus on developing and rolling out improvements on a continuous basis.  

Adapting corporate culture in the age of digital transformation

Digital transformation in the non-digital world of the physical retail outlet is gaining speed. Far from just IT jargon, digital transformation is a change in business culture and a merging of operational strategy with IT strategy. As a result, both developers and board members need to be able to speak the same language, to institute a culture of empathy and drive to keep innovation constant. In retail, this new approach to business operations manifests in models focused on customers, quality, and efficiency – all of which will be essential to keeping pace in an industry characterised by increasing expectations and competition. 

The increasing importance of delivering unmatched experiences in the context of today’s elevated consumer expectations may make it seem like online stores have an edge over the high street. However, while online shopping sparked a revolution in shopping convenience, new technology and software-based platforms are transforming the experience of shopping for consumers. New technology and an agile software infrastructure are both essential to bring the digital experiences customers have come to expect from the domain of online shopping alive to the physical retail outlet.

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