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The Future Of Shopping: It’s In The Details

Despite the growth of online shopping, many consumers still revel in the experience of going to brick-and-mortar locations to purchase goods.

In a physical store, we are able to smell our food for freshness, touch clothing for softness, try on apparel first-hand and interact with living and breathing store associates. Today, online shopping only allows us to use our sense of vision. Still, as online shopping increasingly dominates the retail industry, many retailers are already gearing up for an era in which the digital and physical worlds collide to ensure long-term survival. Recognized as “augmented retail,” this approach combines the ever-increasing use of technology in our daily lives with the comfort of having a human interaction.

There are countless paths that retailers can take to pursue the augmented retail experience. For example, they can adopt a grab-and-go store model, use 3D printing to offer hyper-personalized goods, or allow customers to interact with different products through holographic mirrors. Today, big box stores are closing at an alarming rate and online behemoths are testing out new models — exemplified by Amazon’s intention to purchase Whole Foods.

So one might wonder: what might the retail store of the future look like? There is no doubt that retail will become increasingly rooted in digital experiences, so businesses must be ready to answer the call of the always-on, instant gratification economy.

Unlocking The Potential Of Augmented Retail

The quest to create unique, personalized customer relationships has led to the proliferation of technologies such as IoT, AR, VR and digital assistants. Yet this digital acceleration requires retailers to meet a new set of demands: keeping up with the connectivity needs created by these Cloud-centric, on-demand applications and making the immense volumes of consumer behavior data they are accumulating actionable. Central to all of this, online retailers need to capitalize on this consumption change and develop a strategy to combat network outages. 

The key to unlocking the potential of “augmented retail” lies in making sure the underlying communication network can support the massive amounts of data that is transferred from the cloud with minimal delays. In the past, communication networks were built-out without knowing what types of services needed to be supported, but today’s networks need to be more intelligent and prepared to handle new, unexpected services and demands. For example, new applications, such as chatbots, mobile wallets and real-time inventory, have entered the retail world.  

Upgrade The ‘Plumbing’

Offering such a broad spectrum of technologies calls for a new networking paradigm, one that changes network capacity into capability and “infrastructure” into a programmable platform ready to handle on-demand applications. It’s not possible to predict the network impact of future applications or traffic patterns arising from AR and VR applications, but what is certain in today’s networks is that bandwidth demand at any location is dynamic and fluid, and will change as new end-user devices and applications enter the market. We can expect next generation retail networks to employ Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) initiatives at the network edge to reduce the latency that occurs when an end user accesses an application such as virtual reality. Any real-time immersive environment, such as VR and AR, will need to be responsive and provide an excellent quality of experience. Without networks that are scalable, open and programmable to meet the demands required by on-demand tools, retailers will not be able to deliver the seamless experience their customers crave.

The future may be uncertain for retailers, but survival in this rapidly changing industry lies in creating digital empathy with their customers. Success will be driven by businesses that use technology and data to create a more interactive and personalized shopping experience. To achieve this, retailers need to make sure they have the right communication network in place. 

Loudon Blair is senior director, corporate strategy, at Ciena, a network strategy and technology company.