Most retailers do not have an Internet of Things (IoT) strategy in the true sense of the term, instead they have a plan to achieve greater visibility of their assets, according to Zebra Technologies.
We’re fast approaching the busiest time of the year for retailers. A time when the sheer number of consumers shopping both online and in-store places immense pressure on stock inventory systems, delivery services, and most likely staff morale. So IoB spoke to the retail industry director EMEA at Zebra Technologies, Mark Thomson, for insight into how technology, specifically IoT, can alleviate some of the strain.
First up, is Thomson seeing examples of IoT in retail done well? “It happens in isolation,” he admitted. “The number of retailers that truly have what they would call an IoT strategy is very low, but what they do have is a strategy around bringing more visibility to their products and their assets.”
He, therefore, feels that a process of education about the benefits of IoT is what is currently needed in this sector; some retailers are aware and understand it, but, as in many industries, it hasn’t yet taken off, and that’s for a number of reasons.
“Within the retail operations teams, when you talk about IoT they look at you blankly and perhaps get a bit frustrated, and that’s not because they’re luddites…it’s because they are firefighting daily based on legacy systems.”
“They struggle to see how to move from the pains they have on a daily basis to this wonderful [connected] future.”
Zebra: IoT is “not a choice, it’s now a necessity”
But, Thomson said, incorporating technology is “not a choice, it’s now a necessity.”
To get there, he believes retailers “have to measure the [sales] process, and that means every single element of the process, they have to look at it on the basis of ‘is it necessary, do we have to do it manually’ – which most of them are at the moment – and ‘which bits of that could I automate or drop out completely?’”
This is all part of attaining what Thomson calls a “singular visibility of stock.” As expected, given Zebra specialises in barcoding and scanning technologies, he’s a keen advocate of using mobile scanners and radio-frequency identification (RFID) solutions to measure daily stock takes, and monitor where a product is at any given time along the supply chain.
What he’s referring to is classic track and trace technology, which has a great many benefits, but Thomson also sees IoT going further than just improving costs and efficiencies in the supply chain. He recognises its potential impact on the layout of the physical store, the way staff offer customer service and, ultimately, the benefit to the bottom line.
“IoT, for me, is the use of sensors to give a digital voice to different assets and the mobility side is how we then deploy the data and that information and put it in the hands of the right people so they can actually act on it,” he said.
In what feels like a utopian illustration of the connected store, Thomson envisions a system where customers using mobile applications are recognized by store systems as soon as they walk in. They will then be monitored by sensors, which can pick up the flow of how they move via heat maps or video analytics, or simple beacon technology. The benefit is that staff could connect to this data in real-time to improve the way they interact with the customer.
“It’s about the collaboration of technologies that create automated tasks that allow us to improve sales. The nice thing is that what we’re actually doing in that process is we’re effectively empowering the staff with much better information real-time to be able to engage better with customers. It almost ends up with technology allows us to have better human interactions.”
Some success stories
It’s fair to say this particular vision is still some way off. We recently covered a report that found retailers are indeed somewhat ‘overly optimistic’ about the potential of IoT, as many lack the correct infrastructure to get the most out of it.
Having said that, we’ve also seen a number of examples of retailers using IoT technology in some capacity. From Asda’s smart buildings technology to Ocado’s 4G robots and Coca Cola’s IoT vending machines, there are real use-cases to point to within this sector. And let’s not forget, Amazon has just announced the first completely connected store in Seattle. So it seems that while bricks and mortar stores may still lag behind, there are others within this sector who are showing the way, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest have to follow.