The pressure is on.
For the first time, more consumer dollars will be spent online than in-store this holiday season, and traditional brick-and-mortar stores are feeling more heat than ever. That’s because holiday shopping is undergoing its own digital transformation, putting digitally savvy consumers in the driver’s seat. The message to retailers is clear: Fail to anticipate your customers’ every shopping need and you may not be around long enough to see the next holiday season.
But what’s driving this change?
Consumers Empowered by Technology
Conditioned by digital, the majority of consumers today expect a frictionless, end-to-end shopping experience from point of sale to product delivery. And as their numbers grow so too does the need to focus on the technology driving that experience — both back-end systems and customer-facing applications.
Retailers are responding to these demands with faster in-store Wi-Fi, a more seamless approach to the buying process and new ways to make the in-store shopping experience more fun such as using beacons and mapping technology to gamify the process of locating items in large department stores.
Additionally, as technology has erased the line between the traditional brick-and-mortar and online retail experience, the omni-channel consumer has emerged — one who sees the two worlds as digitally connected, giving them unrestricted access to inventory in real-time, online buying tools that enable them to “showroom” (comparison shop or read reviews) while in-store, and mobile applications that streamline the point-of-sale process and even incorporate their loyalty/rewards program information.
And whether you’re a small shop down the street or a big box retailer expanding online, recognizing how consumer expectations are transforming is critical, and the key to that transformation starts with the network.
Meeting the Retailer Challenges
For retailers, that means a dynamic and robust internet connection that supports real-time supply chain information and rapid inventory searches across all locations, enables a mobile customer service and point-of-sale experience, provides secure and fast guest Wi-Fi access and delivers high-performance, low-latency voice and video services.
Perhaps most importantly for retailers, especially during the holidays, the network must be scalable so it can handle unpredictable surges in usage, from on-site traffic to voice and video-based customer service, and the increasing bandwidth demands posed by everything from automated transactions for inventory to supply chain management applications.
For large, multi-location retailers, extending that scale across multiple stores and offices securely can prove challenging. Traditional T1-based networks lack the flexibility and capacity to meet consumer expectations for a more connected shopping experience.
Unlike traditional networks, SD-WAN provides retailers with a more intelligent and secure network to accommodate evolving demands for flexibility and performance. It also holds the promise of delivering lower costs, smarter broadband connections, and the ability to support high-bandwidth applications.
This could become a game changer for retailers, as customer expectations continue to evolve. With SD-WAN, retailers can gain a competitive edge by building new capabilities and creating new customer experiences such as virtual runways, smart fitting rooms, or magic mirrors.
Retailers can further improve the customer experience with cloud-based voice services that work in conjunction with productivity applications such as Skype or Google. When paired, these services deliver advanced communication and collaboration capabilities to enhance the customer experience. With “click to call,” for example, employees can reach out to technicians, regional managers and other knowledgeable staff to respond immediately to customer questions. Also, managers can train employees collectively on new products, services and promotions without requiring them to travel to a central location. The more knowledgeable and accessible your staff, the better the customer experience.
The transformation of retail is being built on the network, driven by technology and directed by the consumer. This holiday season will bring with it significant changes in the customer experience as the omni-channel consumer emerges and companies figure out how best to meet their changing expectations. The companies that survive and thrive will be those who move quickly and embrace the technology that is driving the future of their industry.
This article originally ran on Fortune.com.