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Many managed service providers (MSPs) initially got their start by providing support for point-of-sale (PoS) systems and digital signage deployed in retail outlets that are difficult for internal IT organizations short on staff to support. As IT continues to evolve across the retail sector, it’s clear that MSPs are being required to substantially increase the levels of technical expertise and sophistication they can bring to retail clients.

One of the main themes at the National Retail Federation (NRF) 2019 conference this week was the ways retailers can leverage advances in Big Data analytics and wireless networks to better engage customers in real time while they are shopping in a retail outlet. For example, Arm, which provides the processors widely employed in smartphones, showcased Arm Retail, which enables retailers to optimize store layout and product placement based on inferences drawn from real-time data using metrics such as item popularity, turnover, aisle traffic, and dwell time. By analyzing metrics, retailers can personalize the in-store advertisements displayed on digital signage in specific aisles in the store.

A survey of 900 professionals working in the retail sector, published this week by Aruba Networks, a unit of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE), highlights just how critical transforming the in-store shopping experience is. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of respondents say their organization is at risk of falling behind competitors if new technology is not implemented.

Retailers must re-engage the consumer

The fundamental challenge retailers are confronting is making it more engaging for customers to visit retail stores, rather than simply relying on e-commerce sites such as Amazon. Even when shoppers go to a store these days, it’s not uncommon for them to whip out their smartphones to compare prices for products online versus what’s available in store. The store has the obvious advantage of providing immediate gratification in that the customer doesn’t have to wait for delivery. However, many shoppers are essentially turning retail outlets into showrooms for online e-commerce sites. They will come to a store to check out a product in person, but this doesn’t necessarily guarantee they will buy that product in the store or from even that retailer. The ability to, for example, make discounts available to customers as they stroll through a retail outlet can go a long way towards closing that gap.

Historically, retailers have tended to be laggards when it comes to embracing new technologies. But the retail industry is now facing something of an existential crisis. More products are still purchased in stores than online, but unless retailers start creating more engaging in-store retail experiences, many of them will become a little more than suppliers to Amazon. It’s already been shown that few retailers with massive investments in retail stores can survive by depending solely on Amazon to resell their products and services.

All the agita now occurring in the retail sector creates an opportunity for MSPs to significantly expand the range of services they provide. Being able to analyze data to affect an outcome in a store in real-time requires major investments in IT. MSPs are in a unique position to aggregate the cost of those investments across multiple retailers. The challenge and opportunity is defining a path forward for retailers that enables them to make this transition in an industry sector where margins are already razor thin.

Photo: Clark Street Mercantile / Unsplash

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Mike Vizard

Posted by Mike Vizard

Mike Vizard has covered IT for more than 25 years, and has edited or contributed to a number of tech publications including InfoWorld, eWeek, CRN, Baseline, ComputerWorld, TMCNet, and Digital Review. He currently blogs for IT Business Edge and contributes to CIOinsight, The Channel Insider, Programmableweb and Slashdot. Mike blogs about emerging cloud technology for Smarter MSP.

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