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The Weakest Link in Retail Digital Transformation


When it comes to digital transformation, the same customer experience and employee engagement problems keep reoccurring across so many retail and restaurant brands. Some restauranteurs have concluded that their business is so dependent on technology, they won’t even consider building at sites with insufficient internet access. For some retailers, the network challenges are confined to 20-30% of the stores. However, when you have a thousand stores, how can your enterprise be content with potentially unsatisfying customer experiences at 200+ locations? 

While network congestion is most commonly associated with sites with access to only low-speed broadband connections, it can also impact higher speed connected stores as well  The problem is an ever-increasing digital demand that exceeds the circuit’s or central office’s capacity. Sites that are functional today may soon suffer unacceptable application performance issues as the regional internet demand increases

What do you do? There are several recommendations to consider.

1.)   Actively monitor the congestion levels in the store networks. For most internet providers, the service plans ordered have very little to do with the actual capacity of the circuits. Sometimes this works in the retailer’s favor, and the store enjoys tens of Mbps in excess capacity. However, sometimes, retailers only receive a fraction of the “up to” data speeds they are expecting.  

Congestion occurs whenever the store’s data requirements exceed the network’s capacity — the greater the congestion, the greater network’s impact on the store’s business. The only way to protect the business is to understand the congestion impact. Stores equipped with the same service plan may have dramatically different congestion challenges.

2.)   Intelligently manage the application traffic. POS transactions and many cloud applications have minimal bandwidth needs but significant latency requirements to maintain a satisfactory user experience. Similarly, VoIP calls have both significant latency, jitter, and packet loss requirements.

Retailers should actively monitor the available bandwidth, shape their store’s data to fit into the available bandwidth, and prioritize their applications according to business impact.

An SD-WAN solution can vary widely in its abilities in managing congestion. The more effective the congestion management, the less Internet capacity is required for satisfactory user experience. Some SD-WAN solutions will be able to support a full portfolio of store applications with a 6 Mbps x 2 Mbps DSL, while other SD-WAN solutions will require 20 Mbps x 20 Mbps cable circuit to provide a similar user experience. A retailer should stress test SD-WAN offerings with traffic generators to fully understand the limits of the SD-WAN’s congestion management capabilities.

3.)   Maximize the multi-path network opportunity by minimizing the usage of metered connections. When one considers how dependent today’s business is on technology and how dependent that technology is on the network, it is surprising to see so many retailers attempt to run their business on single-threaded internet connections. When the network becomes congested, the customers lose their ability to redeem loyalty rewards, and the employees are unable to fulfill basic back office responsibilities.

In addition to deploying a backup connection, retailers should employ an intelligent, multi-path network. As with application management, SD-WAN solutions vary significantly in their ability to manage a multi-path network. Some support active/active configurations with no-packet loss failover during both brownouts and blackouts. While others routinely drop VoIP calls in their transition from primary to backup. Some SD-WAN solutions blindly replicate data packets over multiple links, driving up LTE overage charges. While others intelligently manage application traffic, minimizing the business impact while still providing an optimal failover experience.

As retailers and restauranteurs pursue digital initiatives to transform the customer experience and enhance their employee engagement tools, greater attention must be given to the challenge of network congestion. When it comes to SD-WAN, the right technical decision can create meaningful competitive advantages.