Tackling the challenges of remote branch IT
By Nick East, CEO, Zynstra
Today's retail space is evolving rapidly, driven by changing customer demand and increasing competition. While technology should be the enabler of this shift, very often it is one of the elements holding organizations back — particularly where they have tens to thousands of branches, such as in the convenience store market.
In multibranch organizations, where disparate sites feature different systems that are not supported by onsite IT teams, there is increased pressure to be both more productive and effective, while keeping costs down. This in turn leads to strain on central IT resources.
In order to remain competitive, ensure an improved customer experience and deliver on their demands, organizations need to ensure their IT infrastructure is up to the challenge. With the emergence and availability of local IT infrastructure that is cloud-managed, for example, there are new opportunities for effective, high-functionality remote site IT. This can extend to local networking, security and computing.
But what else is driving the market and making retailers rethink their multisite branch IT?
Cost is always a factor
One of the biggest issues is cost. Supporting a network of remote sites cost-effectively and successfully is a pipe dream for many retailers. If a system or piece of hardware is faulty, an engineer is often dispatched to that site — an exercise that costs both time and money. Looking wider than the convenience store market, if some branches are located internationally, this cost rises even more.
New customer models, new applications
As customer experience becomes more important and a key tool when it comes to competitive advantage, retailers are looking for new ways to interact with their target market. This includes providing a consistent shopping journey across multiple platforms — the omnichannel approach — and giving customers more choice and more ways to fulfill this interaction. Looking at the C-store space, for example, this means improving the actual in-store experience by increasing engagement. C-stores are now investing in sophisticated technologies across mobile and multi-media in-store systems with fast food kitchens and juice bars to become high quality express stores. The addition of tablets and mobile payment facilities to stores enables sales staff to move around the store, being more visible and more productive.
Of course when a C-store brand has multiple stores, the cost and effort involved in maintaining the IT infrastructure increases significantly.
What about data?
In order to provide real-time analytics on what's happening in-store, data must be stored, processed and manipulated. The challenge here is that depending on industry or organizational requirements, very often this data needs to be securely processed locally for compliance, policy, or control reasons but then aggregated across all stores for analytics. This means exploring hybrid IT, integrating the store to cloud services, or the data center.
Depending on the complexity of the applications and systems used in-store, many must be run locally, This ensures a low latency response to customers who are ordering and collecting food, fuel or shopping, and processing payments. No-one likes to stand in line and hear that "our computers are running a little slow today." This often means having on-site applications and servers coordinated on a scheduled and regular basis — particularly when network performance or bandwidth issues must be considered.
Consolidation of IT
For the multibranch retail chain, streamlining and optimizing IT functions is fast becoming a necessity — like virtualizing firewalls, routers and the wide area networking, as well as local applications that support the store. Consolidating network and IT functions on remote sites can deliver significant benefits, in terms of management, maintenance and cost. Fewer servers are needed on-site, less space is required to house them, automation and central management is enabled, and as a result, infrastructure costs are lowered.
A new way forward
For some industry sectors, adopting a cloud-first strategy has been viewed as the way forward. But in the retail branch world, while public cloud does have a role to play, the customer experience enabler is the virtualized store.
The ideal solution is one that features a resilient compute device located in-store that can run all the necessary applications, virtualized. In the C-store environment, for example, this includes point of sale terminals, kitchen management, CCTV and digital signage. The key here is that this server is cloud managed, enabling IT professionals to manage their store network from one central location, eliminating the need to travel to multiple sites to maintain support, while keeping all sites automatically patched, current and on the latest configuration. This hybrid approach makes the most of cloud and on-premise functionality.
The result: a cost effective and easy to manage IT estate that enables the store to improve customer experience and provide a more engaging and digitally appealing environment.
The market is changing rapidly and it is becoming increasingly important for multibranch retailers to keep up with both market and customer demand. Turning to their IT infrastructure is the obvious solution, ensuring that technology fulfills its role as an enabler instead of a barrier.