Not Your Parents’ Brick and Mortar: How Edge Computing Is Supporting Retail’s Digital Revolution

Customer-centric capabilities that consumers grew accustomed to during the pandemic’s quarantine days aren’t going away any time soon. Where can the digital infrastructure needed to support these demands be found? In the edge.

not your parents brick and mortar
Vertiv

sort of curbside pickup and contactless checkout options for customers reluctant to shop indoors. Companies needed more automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to assist with everything from efficiently responding to peaks in demand, to managing the ongoing labor shortages.

As the post-pandemic retail world takes shape, we can expect most, if not all, of the leading retailers to heavily invest in computing resources. This digital infrastructure will support customer-centric applications such as click-and-go technologies, streamlined point-of-sale interactions, and intelligent inventory management.

With the rise in e-commerce, consumers recognize that their purchasing options are greater than ever before — and so are their expectations. A survey from last year found that 65% of consumers want the ability to scan items in a store to see product details on their phone, 50% expect some form of contactless payment options, and 20% want to be able to try on clothes using “virtual mirrors” on their devices using augmented reality features.

To differentiate themselves from competitors, we can expect retailers to put increased emphasis on technologies that deliver these customer experiences and make online and in-store shopping more seamless. For this retail revolution to even be possible, these businesses will need to rely on edge computing. Using edge computing allows these retailers to bring all the necessary computing closer to the customer. This helps reduce latency and provides for a more customer-friendly shopping experience. While edge computing will likely permeate throughout all types of retail environments — big box stores, smaller retail stores, distribution centers, etc. — the equipment and environmental requirements will vary greatly.

Vertiv outlined an in-depth framework for designing critical infrastructure at the edge in its report, Edge Archetypes 2.0: Deployment-Ready Edge Infrastructure Models. This report identifies several edge infrastructure models that can be useful for using a more standardized approach to deploying edge computing in a retail setting. These models include:

  • Micro Edge:Small, standalone solutions that fit in tighter spaces and range in size from one or two servers, up to four racks. They can be deployed at the enterprise’s own site or at a telecommunications site.
  • Distributed Edge Data Center:A small data center having less than 20 racks located at a dedicated data center facility close to the locations. A Distributed Edge Data Center can filter and aggregate data from across sites, sending only the necessary information to the cloud.
  • Device Edge:The compute is located at or within the end device.

Below are some of the solutions, products, and infrastructure supporting the retail transformation in some of the more common settings, as well as best practices for improving the customer experience using edge resources.

Big box, small data centers 

Unsurprisingly, the convenience and “one-stop-shop” experience of “big box” stores like Target, Walmart, and Home Depot made these retailers even more popular during the pandemic. Given that many of these stores already had robust IT resources and were on the cutting edge when it came to delivering convenience and customer support, they were well-equipped to adjust to fast-changing customer behaviors.

These stores often rely on the Micro Edge and micro data centers to support their in-store apps, mobile coupons, and other applications. It’s common for these stores to have their own on-site IT infrastructure to reduce latency and provide the storage needed to collect and use customer data.

Mitigating the risk of an outage is hugely important at the Micro Edge, so most big box stores invest in uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems for backup power, racks for physical security of servers, and thermal management systems to keep servers cool. Additionally, these stores may also incorporate integrated modular solutions to ensure physical security for IT equipment, dedicated cooling systems, UPS for power conditioning and protection, and rack PDUs for power distribution. These can be deployed in a variety of configurations to provide flexibility and meet all the requirements of the micro data center.

Rapidly changing retail distribution centers 

It’s not just the customer-facing settings getting a facelift. Companies are also investing heavily in computing and technology to support their retail distribution centers so they can handle labor shortages and increased customer demand. The new construction of new distribution centers reached new highs in 2021, with no signs of slowing down.

Despite its no-frills appearance, the modern retail distribution center is filled with futuristic, edge-driven AI technology to manage logistics, inventory, and warehouse personnel. However, the hot, dusty nature of these locations means there are unique environmental requirements. To overcome the strain of high temperatures, a small UPS system with lithium-ion batteries can operate at high temperatures and is smaller than a system with traditional batteries. Installing cooling solutions can help deliver cold air straight to the rack or row to prevent server failure and ensure the computing systems stay up and running.

Distribution centers rely on a Distributed Edge Data Center to provide the necessary compute to keep critical IT functions running across a large space. They may also deploy at the Device Edge, where the IT hardware may be fully enclosed within pieces of equipment in the warehouse. Smart devices within a distribution center allow data to be collected and transmitted on pieces of machinery to optimize operations and provide visibility.

Best practices for improving customer experience using the retail edge 

One of the key takeaways from the retail revolution is that organizations must accept that all aspects of retail IT are now mission-critical. Providing a convenient customer experience is no longer just a perk, but an expectation. Plus, as more shopping moves to our computers and phones, the need to protect consumer data and privacy increases.

It’s also important to understand that the proliferation of edge deployments in a retail setting means organizations need to increase visibility into these systems. With hundreds and even thousands of edge sites across a network, often without the presence of on-site IT professionals, ensuring the constant functionality and reliability of these sites can prove to be difficult. Therefore, adopting robust remote monitoring and management tools is vital.

Lastly, transforming your IT systems to meet the changing retail landscape is a complicated process. Having a trusted partner like Vertiv can provide support and help guide you toward solutions tailored to meet your needs. These solutions can help you grow and prepare for the future of the retail edge with greater confidence.

Go online for more information on how to optimize the retail edge.

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