The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the local retail sector hard, with the Singapore Retailers Association reporting that sales for some retailers plunged between 30% to 70% last year.
Besides the financial struggles of juggling rent, overheads and the decrease in customers due to lockdown restrictions and the support rendered, the pandemic highlighted new challenges for the retail sector.
For starters, established and predictable buying cycles that delivered year-on-year against accurate revenue forecasts were upended. The industry saw unpredictable demand cycles as buying patterns changed drastically — be it panic buying or a greater shift towards outlets that provided online shopping and delivery options.
Advance planning for stocks, inventory and even manpower scheduling was disrupted, and with the uncertainty of the entire lockdown landscape, many aspects of day-to-day operations became almost unmanageable compared to the familiar routines established over decades in the pre-pandemic era.
Alongside the usual health and safety at work issues, local retailers needed to implement initiatives that can minimise human contact between their staff and customers while ensuring a good instore experience.
Retailers also had to deploy their available manpower more effectively and efficiently to minimise exposure risk. Against this backdrop, Covid-19 created a realisation that transforming digitally is critical if retailers are to future-proof their operations against disruptions.
The case for IoT, video analytics and automation
By implementing Internet of Things (IoT) sensors such as temperature scanners, retailers immediately send a strong message to customers that they have adopted a safety-first approach while reducing the hassle of manual temperature-taking and improving their in-store experience.
With sensors and video analytics, retailers can determine shop congestion through a data-driven approach. This will enable them to abide by capacity regulations without deploying additional manpower to physically count and track in-store customers, minimising the need for human interaction.
In parallel, by better managing traffic flow, retailers are able to better deploy their now-reduced manpower to higher-value tasks.
Meanwhile, retail process flow automation can drastically simplify store, warehouse and stock management. By introducing automated monitoring of refrigerators, for example, a supermarket can receive real-time notifications when temperature levels shift, mitigating potential losses due to spoilage while meeting food safety best practices.
Moreover, sensors can also provide much-needed visibility on inventory, ensuring retailers have the right amount of supply and resources.
Thinking on the edge
For retailers that have progressed or are looking for applications that require real-time responsiveness — especially in managing a cluster of storefronts within the neighbourhood or “district” — they should consider edge cloud computing. This is absolutely crucial as latency and slow responses will lose the business opportunity to engage in real-time and capture customers during what could be a fleeting visit.
For example, video analytics applications enable retailers to promote the right advertisement to a customer as well as alert a sales personnel to be on hand at the right place and time to promptly attend to the customer’s needs or demands.
Likewise, video analytics can provide an alert if additional manpower is needed for crowd control. However, to be effective, this must be built on the real-time capabilities offered by edge computing.
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By leveraging edge computing, retailers could potentially shuffle resources across a cluster of stores within the vicinity to effectively increase productivity and capture business opportunities. This is the game-changer that can close the sale now as opposed to losing it through a time-lapse.
The benefit of choosing edge computing is not only the high performance it provides. It also reduces the information technology (IT) and operation technology (OT) footprint in-store, freeing up precious store space for other uses. It is also easier to maintain and manage, as well as reduces the need to invest in server equipment.
Digital connectivity is paramount
At the back of automation and smart devices, resilient connectivity is paramount to ensure the technology is up and running without disruption. Low latency is crucial to having real-time data-driven decisions, as starkly demonstrated when an island-wide fibre broadband outage in 2016 left 490,000 users cut off from the Web.
The outage lasted for nearly 24 hours, extremely inconveniencing their customers while doing immeasurable reputational damage.
The incident demonstrated to the entire nation the importance of network resilience and digital connectivity and its place in the risk management plans of any organisation.
Customers expect close-to-zero downtime, and one key takeaway from the incident was for organisations to focus on network resilience to ensure their customers will have the best experience possible at all times.
Making IoT and edge work
To reap the benefits of IoT, retailers will need an easy-to-use and robust IoT platform that can connect a whole host of different sensors and smart devices.
Fortunately, this does not require dealing with multiple vendors or suppliers to build the system from scratch as there are a number of proven and ready-to-use platforms for IoT device management available today.
Such solutions reduce the investment requirements and provide end-to-end device management through to system connectivity. Those providers also offer pay-asyou-use models that minimise the cost to entry and allow an organisation to scale up as they become more familiar and start to reap the advantages.
Grants are also readily available from Enterprise Singapore (ESG) to help retailers kick-start their IoT journey and deployment. Additionally, retailers should look for a partner that can provide edge-as-a-Service to future-proof their deployment and provide the ability to scale up their computing resources when needed to support multiple sites or outlets.
As we move from the pandemic to an endemic response to the virus, and while much has been learned in the fast response tactics, it should not be considered the end of the road.
Savvy retailers in Singapore must continue to adapt and see technology as a friend that will enable them to view their operations in real-time for better customer and operational outcomes.
With the countless benefits provided by IoT, edge computing and automation technologies, retailers must seize the opportunity to transform and digitise their processes.
Tan Choon Chai is the senior vice president for Business IT and Digitalisation at SPTel