E-commerce is growing steadily worldwide, yet seven out of ten retail purchases are still made in stores. This does not exclude brick-and-mortar retailers from being interested in digital technologies and transformation to enhance both customer experiences and store modernization. Retailers continue to invest in stores to offer the experiences that customers expect, including personalized shopping, convenience and loyalty rewards.
Not long ago, the only digital technology in a store might be a point-of-sale (PoS) system. Now, digital transformation is helping retailers deliver excellent in-store customer experiences.
Take in-store Wi-Fi as an example and some of its use cases. Some retailers equip their associates with mobile devices, so they can meet customers where they are instead of standing behind a counter waiting for customers to come to them. Using Wi-Fi, associates answer product questions, check inventory and ring up purchases. Once the store is closed, an in-store network makes e-learning both possible and convenient. Better trained associates serve customers better.
In-store Wi-Fi also makes it faster and easier for shoppers to research products with their smartphones before they buy. Wi-Fi can even help deliver personalized messages to shoppers entering the store via their brand app. It’s no wonder that in-store Wi-Fi has a positive impact on dwell time, customer loyalty and sales.
There are many other examples of how digital transformation is improving customer experiences in stores. Sensors track inventory so stores do not run out of stock. Omnichannel lets customers purchase items online and quickly pick up in a store. Digital signage offers new ways to promote and educate shoppers about products. The list goes on.
As stores go digital, they collect and store more data on their customers than ever, and regulations require retailers to protect it. However, as negative headlines continue to show us, retailers are still prime targets for cyberattacks, typically for credit card information theft from PoS systems. More devices and networks within stores expand the attack surface by increasing possible entry points for hackers to steal customer information from loyalty programs, customer databases and more. The increase in devices also open retailers up to attacks that bring down networks and damage brand reputations, such as turning digital signage into bots that launch DDoS attacks.
Cybersecurity plays a key role in protecting store data and operations. Retailers can apply the same cybersecurity best practices in stores as top brands follow in their data centers:
- Hide the “crown jewels.” Isolate store networks and systems containing payment and customer information from all other networks, physically or logically, using micro segmentation. For example, networks containing digital displays should not be on the same network as PoS or order fulfillment systems.
- Trust no one and nothing. A Zero Trust approach does not assume users on a protected network are “trusted”. Rather, it allows retailers to verify their users, devices and applications on their networks, and even what they are permitted to do on which network. As an example, a retailer’s Zero Trust policy allows only certain users and devices to access the network segment where customer information is handled. It does not allow third parties, such as the digital display companies, to access that network segment. Further, it permits only certain applications (such as the PoS application) to access that segment and prevents certain data types (such as credit card numbers or user credentials) from leaving.
- Deploy access control, encryption and inspection just as you would in the corporate network. Least-privileged access control, ideally including multi-factor authentication, data encryption, and application-layer traffic inspection are strong best practices.
KISS: Keep it Simple, Stores
Digital transformation often causes brands to reevaluate their IT architectures, as stores increasingly need to connect to the internet, apps in the cloud, as well as the data center.
In my discussions with several retailers about digital transformation, the biggest challenge they face is embracing it without significantly increasing their IT footprint or complexity within the stores. Generally, stores do not have the IT staff, money and time required to get a tech onsite. Securing retail store connectivity should be simple – along the lines of ‘set it and forget it’, focusing on policy updates from there.
Today, many brands send all store traffic back to their data centers, where security appliances inspect traffic for threats and apply security policies before routing to appropriate servers or the internet. Yet customer Wi-Fi, digital screens, and SaaS applications – such as inventory or order fulfillment – all require internet access. The option of retailers scaling their existing architecture by upgrading routers and WAN links is becoming less and less viable. This is because many internet-centric services need a more direct transport path due to latency, which adding bandwidth doesn’t solve.
Todays’ state of internet security cannot continue to be a barrier of embracing digital transformation. A better, more viable approach is needed – leveraging a combination of local internet connectivity and security delivered ‘as a service’ from the cloud – which offers several advantages:
- Cost avoidance - Instead of installing bigger pipes and routers to handle more store traffic destined for data centers, retailers can leverage lower-cost internet connectivity to “break out” internet traffic and SaaS applications.
- Simpler deployment and maintenance - Cloud-delivered security has two benefits. First, it is continuously updated, and second it reduces the number of IT appliances in stores, allowing you to do away with complicated security and hardware updates that may need onsite staff to implement or coordinate.
- Consistency - A centralized, cloud-delivered approach can help retailers enforce consistent security and access policies across the entire enterprise: headquarters, distribution centers, and in stores.
- Better user experiences - Connecting securely yet directly to SaaS and other cloud apps from stores is faster than routing all traffic through a data center (direct vs. hairpin).
There’s no reason that brick-and-mortar stores can’t embrace digital transformation to improve operations and customer experience, just as e-commerce retailers have done. And if done right, securing stores does not have to introduce more complexity.