WLAN-based solutions are already widely used in physical retail. The number of application scenarios is rising – as are the demands made on networks.
Today, WLAN use in retail is confined to two scenarios: on the one hand, the various applications used by retailers themselves. These include various store operations such as communication, MDAs or also new IoT (Internet of Things) applications as well as numerous marketing uses such as shopper de-anonymisation, dynamic advertising content (Digital Signage) or data generation. On the other hand, there is WLAN use by consumers who are online with their smartphones in stores comparing prices, gathering product data or just communicating privately.
Furnishing outlets with WLAN for the first time is very cost-intensive for most chain stores. At EuroCIS 2018, The Leading Trade Fair for Retail Technology, from 27 February to 1 March 2018 in Düsseldorf, many exhibitors will therefore come with the latest WLAN solutions. And they will show how to go about planning future-proof infrastructures so that future applications that will probably only be ready for the market in three to five years from now can also be supported.
Eike Folkerts, Consultant at T-Systems International, mentions the use of robots in retail spaces or storerooms as concrete examples. “Many of our customers are also interested in the use of drones,” says Folkerts and adds it must be assumed that the number of applications will rise constantly and that a solid infrastructure will form the basis for this.
The requirements drive applications and they essentially include database, Web and streaming applications. Also decisive is the data volume to be transmitted and the maximum possible response times. These criteria define the required bandwidth. To Christian Schallenberg, Management Board Member at Lancom Systems, bandwidth is crucial: “Since digital development is advancing and the number of devices and applications continues to grow bandwidth must be big enough to also cope with future requirements.” According to Schallenberg, the best option is to rely on the latest WLAN standard IEEE 802.11ac.
Applications define the requirements for infrastructure. Although the performance of WLAN components is subject to increasing growth the limits are set by physics. The air/radio interface is the medium where different emitters compete with each other for the best transmission of their data. Fast WLAN devices compete with slow ones, new devices with old. Devices that only have to transmit less data fast compete with “chatterboxes”. In special retail spheres (e.g. Smart Home or music streaming) infrastructure WLAN even competes with merchandise WLAN.
Competition in Air Space
For all of these reasons proper planning of the radio field is so important. Each WLAN network needs an Overhead for its administration. Therefore, the aim must be to install as few SSIDs (Service Set Identifiers) as possible. Since signal transmission is influenced by many small factors the WLAN site survey and installation must be executed carefully. Again, special rules apply here, says Folkerts: “High bandwidths can only be achieved in small radio cells and Voice and Video require Quality-of-Service (QoS) installations.”
The network infrastructure must be capable of mapping various applications in the form of virtual networks. Online connections can now be found in almost every electronic device in retail outlets – be it connected coffeemakers or automatic ovens. Especially with a view to having completely connected outlets (Smart Stores) new IP-enabled devices will conquer outlets – such as cooling cabinets. Here the buzzword is the Internet of Things (IoT). As a matter of principle the connections should boast universal design so that future applications can also use the same network. “It is important to determine priorities here for the availability and use of bandwidth,” says Folkerts and goes on to say: “We must ensure that check-out systems and other business-critical applications always work.”
Some store owners harbour concerns in view of security and as to whether their shoppers’ data is safe in the network or whether criminals could access commercial data. “With professional WLAN devices and a correct configuration nobody needs to be worried,” remarks Christian Schallenberg. Most important: outlet and guest networks must be strictly separated. Another obstacle many retailers are faced with is the workload for running operations. Even after installing the network there will always be something to fix.
In general, modern network structures are becoming increasingly complex. High-security outlet connections, wireless picking and electronic payment are considered a given. At the same time, WLAN hotspots for shoppers, ESL-electronic shelf labelling and the integration of external service providers are called for. In addition to this, the number of terminal devices is rising, and such trends as Bring-your-own-Device, location-based-services and multi-channel models confront networks with further challenges.
Ever more complex
“The network management of the future lives up to these challenges,” says Schallenberg and adds: “It manages all network components such as routers, switches and WLAN access points centrally and fully automatically.” This is made possible by modern Software-Defined Networking technology (SDN). It aims to make networks of any size and complexity manageable and simplifies elaborate processes that would often take days to handle in the past.
So the technical and organisational conditions are met for retailers to introduce WLAN on a broad basis and the current EHI study “IT Trends in Retail” shows that retailers are also determined to do so: Shopper WLAN is considered a must-have by retailers. Even companies that see no advantages due to their small-scale outlets want to make it available to their shoppers nevertheless. 59 % of the companies polled already offer this service at their outlets, 21 % intend to do so over the coming one to two years. Eike Folkerts of T-Systems can confirm this trend from his own practical experience: “We do not make any surveys on WLAN penetration in retail but feel demand is extremely high. From discounters through fashion retailers to DIY stores – they are all interested.”
EuroCIS 2018 will provide a comprehensive overview of the WLAN solutions available on the market for retail, in particular. EuroCIS 2018 in Halls 9 and 10 of the Düsseldorf Exhibition Centre will be open to trade visitors daily from Tuesday, 24 February 2016 until Thursday, 1 March 2018, from 10.00 am to 6.00 pm.