Software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) will find a home in many areas where agility and flexibility are important to large scale networks – but one industry where it appears tailormade is retail.

Today’s consumer is more demanding than ever before and has higher expectation levels, and retailers are under constant pressure to enhance customer quality of experience (QoE). They must leverage the explosion of mobile devices that customers use and deliver a next generation shopping encounter that those customers will then amplify on social media and share with their friends and family.

This new model is difficult to do in a traditional, distributed retail system where branches connect direct to a HQ. These branches tend to be lean operations with mostly customer-facing staff on site and no IT support on the premises. They typically use MPLS to provide access to key enterprise applications in private data centers, and if they are lucky, some broadband for access to online services. If there is an outage, they are reliant on local assistance.

This makes branch networks essentially hybrid in their nature, and as such potential points of vulnerability – another area where using traditional approaches requires a rethink. Retail needs a new kind of network.

New customers, new devices, new apps

As consumers have increasingly become digital citizens, so too their approach to shopping has digitalized. In high street or physical retail outlets, in-store bandwidth use is exploding as retailers put tablets, video, digital signs and other technologies to work. 

Most modern retailers have a networked point of sale (POS) system in place which also relies on the type of network configuration the organization is using: and the type of network configuration a retailer uses can have a significant impact on business efficiency.

In addition to new in-store devices and developments, retailers have made other technology improvements to their models in recent times, such as adding e-commerce and enabling mobile transactions.

These can be additional applications that put pressure on a retailer’s network. It is not enough to simply change your internet speed, an option that is also potentially expensive and can also add more complexity and more security requirements to infrastructure than desired too. Changing the nature of networking is the way forward for retailers – by making the network software-defined. This is the way to evolve the WAN so that the WAN keeps pace with the demands of the business and the expectations of the customer.

Why SD-WAN?

“Success with digital transformation is dependent on infrastructure, particularly network modernization. Businesses required an agile, dynamic network capable of supporting whatever applications or services are deployed on top of it. An SD-WAN is purpose-built to offer this level of flexibility in contrast to legacy networks,” argues Zeus Kervala in his blog on how SD-WAN is a pillar of digital transformation.

SD-WAN is ideally suited to the retail industry because it fundamentally simplifies branch office networking and ensures that applications perform at the required levels. A software-defined WAN makes the network more agile, enabling retailers to bring more disparate systems together more easily. 

Furthermore, SD-WAN gives retailers the opportunity to control connected devices in one or more locations with software hosted elsewhere, ensuring faster installation and provisioning. 

In addition to letting companies manage their networks from one remote location, there are multiple other benefits to retailers. SD-WAN technology makes opening new branches simpler; there is no need to rebuild or re-provision the WAN, because the bulk of the work is done using software from a centralized location.

SD-WAN also enables the use of heavy bandwidth apps in real-time, such as VoIP or videoconferencing. For example, if a retailer wants to conduct a staff training session with a videoconference from headquarters to multiple branches, SD-WAN allows for workload prioritization to allocate the appropriate bandwidth. 

SD-WAN also means fewer site visits to carry out maintenance or updates. Again, thanks to its centralized nature and remote control, these tasks can be performed remotely.

The future of the retail network

Retail companies that thrive in years to come will be those that are able to successfully employ high bandwidth apps to keep in contact with customers in real-time – and that means having a WAN that offers app prioritization, guaranteed performance and requisite security. Delivering an omnichannel retail experience to customers requires a robust infrastructure and SD-WAN provides that.

SD-WAN has come along at the perfect time for retailers. It gives them the opportunity to implement true digital transformation strategies, and that way lies greater profitability: according to SAP, 80 percent of companies that have embraced digital transformation reported increased profitability. 

In retail, creating the right digital infrastructure has become a critical part of a progressive strategy. The ability of SD-WAN to dynamically empower branches via the network is an essential step forward for retail companies.

You can read more about SD-WAN at the NTT Com SD-WAN content hub.