Is your retail wireless network ready for the new year?

Is your retail wireless network ready for the new year?

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By Bob Nilsson, director of solutions marketing, Extreme Networks

In today’s market where shoppers have the choice to shop online or via social, brick-and-mortar must ensure they are exceeding shoppers’ expectations. More specifically, the in-store experience must inform, engage and assist in their journey through the aisle and to the cash register each and every store visit. This is where a flawless store operation comes into play, including the wireless network.

Wi-Fi's role in the shopping experience
With the rise of mobile, Wi-Fi is more seen as a “utility” for shoppers who merely expect it to work in order to use their device in-store. Therefore, retailers must provide reliable Wi-Fi to ensure a happy and connected shopping experience that includes unique digital touch points that drive the shopper closer to the checkout aisle. For instance, Wi-Fi is essential in powering the use of in-store navigation through a loyalty app, tailored advertising and coupons as well as expert assistance. Though, Wi-Fi is also necessary for powering the back-end, such as barcode terminals and printers. In other words, if your network is down, your store is down.

So what does this all mean? Your wireless network must cope with the high demand for speed and capacity. And it must deliver the same performance – in terms of reliability and security — as a wired network. There’s another aspect to this too. Many of the people I speak to in IT face the combined pressure of less time and smaller budgets. So, to help, wireless must be easier (and more cost-effective) to deploy, monitor and run.

5 steps to successfully connect shoppers  
With this in mind, here are five steps you can take to ensure that your Wi-Fi network will deliver the reliability and performance your users demand on each and every shopping trip:
1.    See everything everywhere:  When I speak to administrators, the number one thing that worries them most is not seeing what’s happening on their network — there’s nothing worse than a flood of unexpected calls to the help desk! Wi-Fi administration tools provide constant insight over the network’s health and can offer retailers increased visibility into real-time data such as the status of individual access points, what apps are running and the types of devices connecting to the network.
2.    Centralize troubleshooting:  In order to prevent or solve networking issues on the spot, tools which can remotely diagnose networking issues allow retailers to save costs without having to call in an engineer. These tools can alert the team of the issue immediately and include the option to remotely reboot, adjust and change configurations for any access point, anywhere, over the web. To prevent connectivity issues ahead of time, retailers should also use pro-active troubleshooting tools that can test the end-to-end connection between the shopper and application, before the doors open.
3.    Visualize and control applications:  With network traffic buzzing during peak shopping times such as weekends and holidays, some applications may be more business critical to bring in sales. Monitoring tools can not only tell you what’s running on your network, but allow you to prioritize certain activities. For instance, you may want to ensure that loyalty app traffic is given priority between 9am and 5pm ahead of requests for Facebook or general web searches. The most effective monitoring systems use Deep Packet Inspection engines, built into management software and wireless access points, to allow you to monitor traffic. You can then use rules-based firewalls to filter or throttle non-priority traffic.
4.    Optimize security: Wi-Fi has been seen as a potential Achilles heel, especially since the recently reported WPA2 concerns. However, you can mitigate threats by using networks that offer government-grade security protection. Security and legal requirements integrated into everyday workflows can provide automated security tests and audits to validate PCI compliance. Additionally, this includes Wi-Fi guest access by having the ability to capture shoppers’ mobile numbers in order to send them verification codes when logging onto the network.   
5.    Automate management: Your network should be able to self-manage — with self-aware Access Points taking actions to remedy issues such as interference, an overloading of an access point or its failure. By automating the network to overcome these issues — swapping between frequency channels, increasing power and rebalancing loads across each Access Point – any foreseen networking issues can be resolved immediately before they occur during critical shopping times.

As Wi-Fi becomes a true asset to the shopping experience, retailers must double check their network from inside out to ensure it can withstand foot traffic throughout the year. This will ensure Wi-Fi remains as the core network foundation for your retail business in the foreseeable future.

Topics: Customer Experience, Technology

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