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Opinion: How brick-and-mortar retail is becoming a leader in edge computing

17 Jul 2018

Article by Schneider Electric IT Division executive vice president Dave Johnson

Few industries feel the disruption of new digitization-driven business models more than traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.

Although 90 percent of worldwide retail sales still occur in physical stores, a recent Deloitte industry report concluded that digital interactions influence 56 cents of every dollar spent there.

Amazon and other online retail business models are gaining market share and making it difficult for many traditional retailers to compete. These challenging circumstances force change across retail organizations.

Those who are managing to grow in this changing environment offer customers innovative in-store technology-driven experiences that capture the simplicity of Amazon.com-like interfaces while providing additional layers of personal service.

Many brick-and-mortar retailers are investing aggressively in compute power located closer to the buyer, a notion that has come to be known as edge computing.

Whereas technology within a physical retail storefront has traditionally consisted of a small wiring closet / server room and some cash registers with individual backup power systems attached, new edge environments focus on the digital experience of the customer inside the store.

New edge applications support devices such as digital mirrors, smart dressing rooms, and smart displays located across the store.

For example, in smart fitting rooms equipped with augmented reality (AR) mirrors, shoppers can see how they would look in different clothing without physically trying the items on. New edge technologies also help to predict consumer behavior as the customer moves through the aisles of the store (technologies such as infrared beacons generate heat maps, relaying information to retailers about in-store traffic patterns, allowing them to better optimize the space).

In addition, all of the data gathered from bar codes and scanners at store checkout points (that record prices and automate inventory control) require local computing and analysis to keep stock at optimal levels.

Micro data centers and reduced store inventories

High resiliency, micro data centers are the technology of choice to support this new wave of edge applications.

As the edge becomes the critical connectivity point for local data gathering and analytics, in conjunction with the cloud, micro data centers offer a “plug and play,” preconfigured, integrated edge power, cooling, security and monitoring infrastructure. These edge nodes are managed remotely via software so that no IT expertise is needed on site to keep the systems running.

Another big change involves a reduction of in store inventory. Only samples are on display so that customers can see, feel, touch and test all of the benefits of a particular product.

They then order the desired size, color or other available customization for quick delivery (oftentimes on an interactive screen or kiosk).

Security considerations now require a higher emphasis

In new edge environments, retailers should factor in both physical security and cybersecurity.

Rather than residing behind secured doors as in a traditional data center, IT assets are often in the corner of a room, just steps away from a busy retail environment, exposed to both people and the outside elements.

Employees in remote offices may not attach as much importance to security as do employees who work in more traditional data center settings. Therefore, security education and awareness programs along with security solutions can go a long way towards boosting overall security of edge assets.

Providers of new retail edge solutions, like Schneider Electric, establish cybersecurity standards for software and hardware products that have a network connection and communication capabilities.

A healthy, cybersecurity-related paranoia influences product designs. All the new products are subject to rigorous requirements that meet cybersecurity compliance and regulatory safety and privacy standards. In this way, end users know that cybersecurity safeguards come built-in to the products they purchase.

Take the next step

Edge computing represents a major step forward in helping retail operations to remain competitive.

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