Opinion: The Digital Experience Starts with the Network

Tim Tang, Director of Enterprise Retail Solutions, Hughes

The convenience-store industry has an immense opportunity to “surprise and delight” the customer. The steady emergence of new solutions, such as location-based marketing and mobile payments, keeps the race for leadership in customer experience fresh and competitive. The only thing changing faster than the technology is the rising bar of customer expectations.

The industry’s collective efforts to give the customer what she wants, when she wants and how she wants it has dramatically elevated expectations of what counts as relevant, engaging and convenient shopping experiences. The final judgment lies with the customer: What does she think of her shopping experience, and will she want to come back for more?

While retailers are right to focus on customer-facing innovations, they must also consider the underlying digital plumbing that makes all of this possible. The most compelling loyalty app will only frustrate customers who are unable to download it. Premium content such as exclusive videos and games will fail to drive business if customers are not able to easily access it. Cloud-based apps for inventory optimization or workforce management will not improve store operations without reliable access to the network.

In an age in which so much of the customer experience is directly dependent on the size and security of the network, what is the right solution, and who should bear responsibility for procurement?

Don’t Be Slow

The problem is not a trivial one; the reality for most retailers is that the ideal solution is either unavailable or unaffordable.  Traditionally, enterprise-grade solutions such as T1/MPLS are too expensive and provide an insufficient amount of network capacity. While alternative broadband solutions may provide higher bandwidth at a lower price, their fluctuating capacity, latency and jittery profiles are problematic for streaming applications (e.g., VoIP, video) and real-time cloud applications.

There are also business requirements to meet, specifically affordable prices. A digitally engaging experience may require numerous devices (media players, monitors, Wi-Fi access points, routers and switches) to be installed, operated and maintained.

When a retailer commits to putting any kind of digital experience in a store, the company is committing to relevant, quality content for the customer. Outdated promotions due to a network failure are not an option. Even worse: a dark screen due to media player or TV failure. The store network must be robust enough to carry heavy multimedia downloads and reliable enough for real-time monitoring and management of all components.

The mostly franchised c-store industry has traditionally left network decisions to the franchise operator. While the brand may provide a VPN solution to ensure PCI compliance, the franchisee is left to decide which type of network to procure for each store.

However, while a franchise operator may be willing to invest more into the network, such premium access may not be available in the area. In such situations, he or she may have to buy whatever access is available and then virtually magnify such capacity with network compression technologies (e.g., WAN optimization) to achieve the desired level of customer engagement. Otherwise, a slow network response may seriously undermine redemption rate of even the most generous promotions.

A New Paradigm

A franchise-centric approach to network procurement may have been sufficient when the network was supporting only basic credit-card transactions and daily polling activity. But now that the network has become the core foundation for real-time customer engagement, a new procurement paradigm may be required. A highly engaging digital customer experience during a peak traffic hour will strain any network infrastructure. Will every franchise operator under a single brand umbrella see the greater opportunity and invest in a consistent customer experience?

Isn’t now the time for mandated network requirements in order to preserve a consistent customer experience?

The extreme digitization of our society has created an unprecedented opportunity for the industry to engage customers with a relevant, compelling experience. However, the ability to leverage digital is directly proportionate to the capability of the underlying network. Traditional telecom solutions and business practices have proven inadequate in helping retailers thrive in this new economy.