Despite the emergence of new cloud, AI, IoT and other advanced technologies, Santa continues to deliver presents the old-fashioned way — on a flying sled pulled by reindeer. Yet these technologies have transformed holiday shopping experiences. From online “Wish Lists”, to in-store review and price checking on mobile devices, to last-minute delivery or in-store pickup of online orders, today’s holiday shopping experience is a lot different than it was 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.
Today, Amazon, Walmart and other retailers that anticipated how these technologies might change holiday shopping are reaping the benefits, while many of those that were caught flat-footed by these changes are racing to catch up, if they have not fallen by the wayside like Toys ‘R’ Us and Sears. Given this, retailers today should be asking themselves how one of today’s most disruptive emerging technologies — the IoT — might transform holiday shopping in the future. If they can do this, these retailers can get a head start in using IoT technologies to offer better holiday shopping experiences to their customers, rather than find themselves trying to catch up with competitors in the future.
Predicting the future is always difficult, but recent IoT technology innovations seem to be creating three potential opportunities for retailers to improve holiday shopping experiences. Specifically, new IoT technologies enable more “pop-up” stores, better inventory management and intelligent lockers for the delivery of groceries for holiday dinners.
Streamlining Pop-Up Store Internet Connectivity
Though holiday and other “pop-up” stores, ranging from temporary stores by retailers like Honey Baked Ham to complete marketplaces like the Union Square Holiday Market, have been around for a while, more recently they have increased in popularity. Online retailers see them as a way to connect to their customers in the “real world,” while brands without a retail presence and traditional retailers see them as a way to generate buzz and increase awareness. Perhaps most importantly, with many products seeing the vast majority of their sales taking place around a specific holiday, pop-up stores enable brands and retailers to provide easy access to holiday-related products without investing in retail store infrastructure and operations during other parts of the year.
Until recently, there has been a significant obstacle that has been preventing retailers from launching more pop-up stores — the difficulties in being able to quickly and affordably set up and manage the Internet connectivity needed for a pop-up store’s point of sale systems, cloud-based order and inventory applications, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones. Arranging and installing cable or fiber-optic Internet connectivity is slow and costly, and in until recently wireless cellular connectivity provided limited bandwidth and could be unreliable.
However, new LTE cellular technologies deliver the bandwidth needed to support all the applications a pop-up store might need. In addition, new gateways and routers equipped with Smart SIMs are able to automatically switch to alternative wireless providers if connectivity with the retailer’s primary wireless provider goes down. New cloud-based network management solutions also enable a retailer to monitor, reconfigure and update all their cellular gateways remotely, allowing them to easily manage wireless connectivity for dozens or even hundreds of pop-up stores. With these IoT innovations, we can expect the holiday pop-up store trend to accelerate, with one of the main barriers to launching pop-up stores — easy, fast, and reliable Internet connectivity — overcome.
Smart Shelves Improve Holiday Product Availability
Another area where IoT technology is likely to change holiday shopping is inventory management. A retailer can have the right advertising strategy, right location, great customer service — but if the gift or other holiday product the customer is looking for is not on the store shelf, the customer will be frustrated and the retailer is going to miss out on a sale.
However, new Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) networking technology enables retailers to deploy smart shelves that can automatically alert store employees when they need to reshelf a product. In addition, smart shelves can use these BLE technologies in combination with new Device to Cloud (D2C) data orchestration solutions to connect to a retailer’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, so the retailer’s headquarters knows when a shelf is empty or close to empty, and order more of a specific product for a particular store. New IoT technologies like these will enable retailers to better keep their store shelves fully stocked with holiday products their customers are looking for, increasing both customer satisfaction and sales.
Intelligent Lockers Change How People Shop For Holiday Dinners
It might be easy to forget, but one of the most important holiday shopping experiences for many people involves purchasing groceries for their Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, New Year’s, Easter and other holiday dinners and celebrations. But increasingly busy professionals have difficulty making sure they are at home at the right time to accept and sign for a delivery from a grocery, let alone go to the supermarket and shop for groceries themselves — as the success of boxed meal kits such as Blue Apron demonstrates.
The IoT might soon transform this holiday grocery shopping experience as well. New high-coverage Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) networking technologies and D2C data orchestration solutions enable the deployment of “intelligent” refrigerated lockers. With these intelligent lockers, stores can deliver their customers’ online orders of fresh groceries, without needing the customer to be there to receive or sign for it — the locker will keep the groceries fresh till the customer picks them up later.
These intelligent lockers will have IoT edge devices that use sensor data to determine when groceries have been delivered, and then use an LPWA network and D2C data orchestration to transmit this information to the intelligent locker provider’s CRM system. The CRM can then send an email or SMS alert to the person renting the locker that their groceries are ready for pickup. In addition, the D2C data orchestration solution can manage sensors in the refrigerated locker to ensure that the locker’s temperature and other environmental conditions will keep the groceries fresh, and implement new thresholds and alerts on sensors depending on groceries.
In the past, installing sophisticated sensors like this in a locker would have been cost-prohibitive and difficult to manage. However, LPWA’s low cost, its ability to provide coverage deep inside buildings where these lockers are likely to be located, and D2C data orchestration’s ability to both monitor these sensors and even change the sensors’ management rules and alerts could soon make delivery of “all-the-fixings” for a holiday dinner to intelligent refrigerated lockers a reality.
In 2019 there will be a lot for retailers to consider as they evaluate their 2018 holiday marketing and sales efforts in an effort to improve them this year and beyond. Part of these considerations should be how new IoT technologies might enable them to transform their customers’ holiday experiences.
This might mean evaluating whether faster, more reliable wireless internet connectivity could allow them to launch more pop-up stores, if they can use BLE-enabled smart shelves to improve product availability, if they might soon be able to use intelligent lockers to deliver groceries for holiday celebrations to their customers, or whether other IoT technologies offer them opportunities to change how people shop during the holidays. In doing so, these retailers will help ensure that when future IoT-enabled holiday retailing disruptions do arrive, they will be the disrupters, not the disrupted.
Benoît Tournier is Director of IoT Solutions at Sierra Wireless, focusing on strategic markets, including retail, transportation and public safety. He joined Sierra Wireless with the acquisition of Sagemcom in 2013, where he was business development director for Sagemcom’s main Machine to Machine (M2M) verticals, including smart metering, security, payment terminals and automotive. Tournier has an Engineering degree from INPG, and an MBA from ENPC-Temple Fox.