Taking Stock: Is your store "smart" enough?
Have you ever felt threatened by online retailers? Having troubles to get customers in the door? Feeling challenged by smartphones when shoppers use them to price compare in your store? Maybe it's time to make your store "smart". By connecting different devices in a store to gather real-time customer data and transform the data into action, the intelligent system does not only make your store smart, but also make you an intelligent store owner. Retail in Asia spoke with John Boladian, Director for Windows Embedded for APAC at Microsoft, about the application of the embedded technology and how intelligent system will benefit retailers.
RIA: What is the intelligent system?
John Boladian (JB): An intelligent system enables data to flow across an enterprise infrastructure, spanning the devices where valuable data is gathered from employees and customers, to the back-end systems where that data can be translated into insights and action. With this capability, companies can finally unlock hidden value from data previously out-of-reach, and immediately act on new insights to increase business value.
RIA: What are the possible applications of the embedded devices and how versatile will they be?
JB: There are a huge number of applications for embedded device. They can be used in retail, hospitality, healthcare, manufacturing and transportation industries. In the retail industry, it's everything from data acquisition devices like a handheld scanner that's being used in warehousing, stocktaking, GPS satellite tracking and fleet management, as well as digital signage, point-of-sale systems, kiosks and other devices that are powered by embedded technology.
RIA: Can you give us an example about how the embedded device is used in retail business?
JB: There's a great example I saw in Japan that shop assistants are being equipped with these ruggedised computers. When you go into a store with information about a promotion you saw on a leaflet, the shop assistant has the same information you have on his display and they can show you more information about the product you are interested in. They can also connect over a wireless network back into their own store systems that could even be cloud stored somewhere on the internet or stored inside of their own store backend.
The reason they use embedded device in the store is because they can customise it. They don't need all of the desktop type software that they normally put on a PC. That device really becomes very specialised – very responsive and very quick to start up. Usually the case of the device is built in a way so that even if you drop the device, the screen doesn't crack. Some of our partners like NEC have developed a ruggedised tablet which will keep working even if it's dropped 3 feet onto the ground.
RIA: How will Windows Embedded technology benefit retailers?
JB: There are a few different areas. First of all, Microsoft provides end-to-end seamless connectivity between different platforms which gives retailers a competitive edge against their competitors. Microsoft is always implementing technology that works very well with other software and technology assets from within the company. So if you already have a Windows server storing information on a database, by using Windows Embedded on the client, we can ensure that they will talk together. And there won't be any compatibility problems between the platforms.
Connectivity is very critical in intelligent systems, because if you cannot have the connectivity between devices, then you cannot have the data and you cannot get the business intelligence. So the whole foundation of having Microsoft on each end will guarantee certain level of service.
Secondly, we provide management tools built into Windows Embedded that will help retailers manage their devices. When retailers are deploying technology, one of the things that they are very concerned with is being able to control that device in the network. So, once you start to increase the number of devices you use, it becomes even more important to manage those devices and ensure they are protected from any type of attack.
For example, I run a supermarket. I might have 20,000 or 30,000 POS terminals around the country. If one store has one terminal and one terminal goes down during the peak shopping period, I need to know as quickly as possible. I need to know why and what I need to do to fix it. Our management tools will help to identify where the problem is and how to dispatch somebody from the support team to go and resolve that problem. If you are not managing that device well, that is going to cost you money.
Thirdly, we provide security in our solutions. Let's imagine there's a supermarket with 30,000 terminals in 5,000 locations around the country. If somebody was to go in, they could theoretically try to change or manipulate the software inside one of my devices without me knowing. Sometimes, the terminal would have a small database and that database has my pricing, stock levels or confidential information like that. So, if somebody was to compromise that, they might be able to steal some of my data. We provide encryption mechanisms that are built into Windows Embedded platform and we stop people from being able to read information even if that machine is taken to another site and somebody tires to break into it. We have very strong encryption security mechanisms in place.
RIA: What embedded device are Asian retailers focused on?
JB: Over the past few years we've seen in particular, how digital signage had evolved to become a critical portion of the intelligent systems for retail strategy or implementation. We are going to see a lot more interests in driving video analytics in digital signage systems, because retailers are looking for ways to engage and retain customers.
To get a lot more intelligence into what the customers are doing in the store – such as what areas they are focusing on, what they are doing during sale period, how customers are feeling when they are looking at particular display – a retailer is able to generate, track and harness a variety of data streams and create business insights.
For example, by adding video analytics into digital signage and connecting that with database systems inside of the retailer, we are able to capture information about how many people are in each portion of the store at what time of a day, how long they spend at looking at different things, whether they are male or female and how old they are.
There are some retailers paying huge amount of money on consulting firms to get surveys. Now they actually have the power to do the survey in their own store and that doesn't add any additional cost once they implement the technology.
If a retailer finds out that the average age of its customers is 45 and there are more females in the morning, and the average age of its customers is 25 – 50:50 male and female – in the afternoon, then the retailer can start to do promotions in store in the morning for makeup and in the afternoon for school supplies. That's the type of business retailers can take and use in their own environment.
RIA: How does Microsoft find out what kind of embedded technology retailers need?
JB: We've got very good connections with top retailers in the industry. Some of our top executives also came from some fairly large retail organisations. We have regular meetings with top retail customers in the US or Japan and they come to our Executive Briefing Centre and our Retail Experience Centre (REC). The REC is a fully-functioning retail experience that we can bring customers in, show them our technology and get the feedback.
What's more, we've already started opening Microsoft retail stores in some parts of the US. Inside of the Microsoft store, there are all different Microsoft-based technologies that you can buy such as Xbox, different software and hardware that's built by our PC, laptop partners. It's a fully-functioning retail experience that's actually selling to consumers, so we are also able to understand what the consumers' requirements are in a retail environment by owning and operating our own stores.
RIA: You showcased many Windows Embedded devices in Retail Tec Japan with your partners Fujitsu, NEC, Toshiba TEC and Razorfish in March. How do you work with your partners?
JB: If we think about Microsoft and how Microsoft has formed its business model over the years, one of the things that we have always done is worked with partners, because partners create the value on top of the operating system platforms that innovate together with our software to drive great applications into the hands of the customer.
Our partners take our different technologies and work with retailers determining what their requirements are. They will do the integration work and help retailers to build the system that's specific for that retailer's requirement. So, sometimes they will take some pieces we offer and put together with some of their own technology, then that specialised environment is created for the customer.
There are very standard things they take from us such as Windows 7 for Embedded Systems, Windows Embedded Standard 7, POSReady for POS terminals and Windows Embedded Handheld for handheld terminals. What will happen is that integrator then works with retailers to understand their requirements and build the system that is best suited for them.
Our partners have been working together with us over the years to drive great devices, great systems and develop solutions for their customers with us, building them on Microsoft technology.
John Boladian is the Marketing Director for Windows Embedded where he is responsible for Asia-Pacific and Greater China regional partner engagement and communications representing all Windows Embedded platforms.
Taking Stock is Retail in Asia's fortnightly column dedicated to showcasing opinions from experts in the retail industry.