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Glenn Katz

Vice President and General Manager of Enterprise Services of Comcast Business

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Looking for omnichannel retail success? A next-gen network is critical.

January 20, 2016

For years, retailers have been experimenting with omnichannel initiatives designed to create an improved and interactive shopping experience for consumers.

There is no doubt about it – new software and hardware components are simplifying IT tasks for enterprises of all kinds. At the same time, the considerations for how to best utilize network assets and engage with customers have become far more complex. Design, implementation and maintenance of next-gen networks is evolving into a sophisticated art that is increasingly essential to organizational efficiency and brand competitiveness—especially in the retail industry.

For years, retailers have been experimenting with omnichannel initiatives designed to create an improved and interactive shopping experience for consumers. But success rates have varied. Different retailers derived different focuses under the pressure to adopt omnichannel models. The common denominator for comparison—differentiating the successful implementations from the rough starts—can be found in the underlying network infrastructure that supported their IT initiatives.

The trend toward convergence in the IT industry has not always been embraced by retailers. Instead of fortifying their network, despite the argument that the network itself serves as the platform to deploy all other initiatives, retail has traditionally focused on end user applications and customer engagement technologies. To say the least, lessons have been learned. If you deploy customer-facing shopping tools, the pressure is on the retailer to provide a seemingly effortless delivery of the service in question. To ensure seamless service delivery, retailers up to the challenge need to harness the bandwidth metrics, redundancy measures and hardware diversity best suited to their strategic goals in order to produce the quality of service that makes the customer experience actually engaging.

The latest talk in retail is around “Unified Commerce”. There’s a key difference between the talk around omnichannel and the talk around unified commerce; discussions are now much more heavily focused upon the network. Perhaps this is due to the continued advances in wireless and cloud-based technologies, but the change in focus is here to stay. The shift in emphasis towards maximizing network speed, capacity and redundancy echoes a well-known piece of telecom IT proverbial wisdom: Avoid a single point of failure.

While an intuitive and easily taken point, the advice can get buried under the complexity of a fully distributed enterprise wide area network (WAN). Diverse hardware and diverse pathways make sense in principle, but oftentimes get lost in the shuffle of balancing budgetary requirements with service provider and multi-vendor contracts. For example, in addition to a broadband primary circuit, such as fiber, hybrid fiber coax or coax, it is highly recommended to deploy a wireless back-up device to stores. You won’t spend much more getting an active backup (always on) versus passive (hope it kicks on when primary goes down), but you will save a lot in the long run. During the highest selling periods, network stress factors increase greatly –particularly during the holiday season when downtime is NOT an option.

An increasing emphasis on the underlying network infrastructure can be seen as the auspice that true innovation is on the horizon. Today’s “connected” customer is defining the rules. Retailers must conform to their expectations, offering the ability to shop where and when in the manner that suits their preference. Taking all the best ideas from omnichannel—from line busting, inventory management and tablet-equipped store associates to upselling, loyalty programs, heat mapping and other marketing analytics—and deploying these solutions in a real-time, dynamic environment, is the challenge. Retailers are now under the gun to design, implement and optimize solutions in order to obtain the significantly greater bandwidth, speed and reliability of real next-gen networks. With foresight and some sound ROI analysis, forward-thinking retailers can leverage the next-gen, high availability networks needed in order to deliver the quality of service that takes the latest end user applications and technologies from the drawing board to the store as a success.

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