Retailers go wireless in a big way – NRF musings …

When I wasn't meeting customers at the Cradlepoint booth at this year’s National Retail Federation’s Big Show, held Jan. 14–16 in New York City, I walked the floor and saw hundreds of solutions that leverage (or depend on) wireless in the retail environment. With the proliferation of cellular and wireless-enabled devices, from iPhones to Androids to tablets, retailers are searching for ways to connect with customers within their retail environment. It’s obvious that the innovative retailers are already moving with offerings. As a mobile-device junkie, I’m excited about what’s coming.

Two broad categories of solutions are emerging: (1) internal wireless applications, and (2) ‘guest’ or ‘customer-facing’ applications. Both have unique challenges and opportunities, and require different approaches.

Internal wireless solutions, such as handheld POS, are being rolled out by many retailers. I bought my daughter a shirt at Urban Outfitters recently, and conveniently paid using the sales person's handheld. I was even more surprised to purchase a pair of skis for my wife at REI right at the ski rack … . I must admit being a bit uncomfortable completely skipping the counter and walking out with just an email receipt. To enable these wireless internal applications within the store, retailers need secured wireless, such as a dedicated, non-broadcasted WiFi connection with a virtual LAN to the corporate POS network. At the NRF show, there were no less than a hundred vendors with WiFi-enabled POS handhelds, including some cool new products from VeriFone and Motorola.

The other category, guest WiFi and customer-facing applications, is full of new and innovative companies looking to help retailers engage customers ‘in-store’. Innovators are moving from simple guest WiFi with advertising or special offers into hyper-local marketing and in-store mobile apps oriented towards improving the customer experience, while giving the retailer valuable information on customer behavior. The NRF folks are helping drive thought leadership and idea exchange with their Integrated Mobile Initiative.

The guest WiFi and customer-facing applications require robust in-store wireless solutions that don't compromise the security of the internal applications mentioned above. Often, these guest WiFi solutions are routed over completely different networks than the internal applications, and at minimum over separate virtual LANs. Properly supported guest WiFi solutions offer the potential for customer analytics such as customer location, repeat visits, time in store, and even interactions with kiosks or digital signage within the store. Customer loyalty programs are destined to use hyper-local wireless identification in the near future. Even Facebook is getting into this game with their acquisition of Tagtile. Although certainly not without privacy concerns, the right usage of these technologies can benefit both retailers and shoppers alike.

It’s an exciting new world for the connected retail experience. To support these retail wireless solutions, retailers need 100% network reliability and, usually, fatter Internet pipes into their retail locations. As retailers roll out these solutions, they will need powerful, cloud-enabled management and analytics software that is reliable, secure, and responsive. At Cradlepoint, we have many retail customers implementing these technologies. Beyond local wireless, we help them leverage the convergence of the wired and wireless world in our enterprise edge routers, while delivering cloud-enabled management and applications that help them manage thousands of locations. It’s going to be fun to be part of the connected retail experience for the next 5 years!