Technology has transformed how customers can shop for everyday goods. Before the pandemic, Amazon made headlines building the world’s first contactless, unmanned grocery store. Their use of various internet of things (IoT)-powered smart karts and kiosks inspired leaders across the retail industry and put the technology into their wish-lists. Last year, that wish-list became a critical item on the agenda as regulators locked-down cities and stipulated social-distancing norms for retailers selling essentials such as food and essentials, personal hygiene items, and so on.

For superstores, investing in technology is a matter of survival, and access is easy to obtain. To imagine their challenges, however, you need to step into their shoes and see things from their perspective.

Supermarkets are large, individual spaces that sell thousands of items (SKUs) across hundreds of categories to thousands of customers every day. The typical supermarket giant has several hundred supermarkets across multiple cities, with tens of thousands of staff members working with hundreds of distributors and suppliers, through dozens of hubs or fulfillment centers.

Further, in the digital world, most supermarkets also serve customers online via mobile and web applications and aim to deliver fresh goods (perishables) along with other retail items, within hours or the next day.

The pandemic has added to this complexity as supermarkets have also had to offer curbside pickups to customers – not only because of regulatory and public health guidelines but also because they cared about the wellbeing of customers and staff who wanted to socially distance themselves to stay safe.

When you imagine all of this – and think of the number of smart-carts and -kiosks, shelf sensors, intelligent cameras, and various other technologies that need to be deployed, the level of detail in tracking and managing inventory, the number of behind-the-scene processes you need in order to capture data, and the complexity of the network architecture needed to support the physical as well as digital presence of the entire chain of supermarkets, you begin to realize the magnitude of the project.

From a broader perspective, holistically speaking, managing those challenges while continuing to provide a delightful and secure experience to customers as well as staff is the biggest challenge to building the supermarket of the future.

Using expertise to bolster experiences across the chain

Our client – a leading player in APAC region that owns a chain of supermarkets, navigating this change demands the support of an experienced partner. Cisco proudly plays that role.

When we embarked on this project, their goal was to build out a unique digital store experience – and Cisco’s automation, assurance, and security capabilities have made that possible.

We have a portfolio that’s deep and wide and supports a number of use cases across industries as clients aspire to become resilient enterprises that live and breathe in data-rich environments and in agile ecosystems powered by multi-cloud hybrid architectures. In a supermarket, for example, connectivity plays a major role – which is why a combination of hardware and software from Cisco’s portfolio has helped the chain bolster its network and boost performance to obtain near perfect scores on uptime and availability. Since our solutions are vendor-agnostic, we were able to fully support our client’s decision to go with a particular cloud-provider.

What this really means is that all the IoT-powered sensors and devices in our customers’ stores across the country were always online and ready for customers. Avoiding downtime meant dissonance between digital and actual records were fewer and reconciliations were easier.

Leaders know that the value of investments in technology can only be unlocked when teams are able to effectively deliver and support new services. As a result, the emphasis on automation and robotics, and realizing efficiency gains through that has been a key focus area during the engagement.

From a boardroom overview perspective, the biggest advantage that working with Cisco provided was the breadth of experience it brought to the table, and the commitment to delivering on promises showcased by sharing in the risks – and taking on commercial responsibility for goals and milestones. To the supermarket, a failure in technology could severely impact its bottom-line as well as the experience it provides to customers; our experience helped avoid and mitigate those circumstances.

On the other hand, being able to deliver a consistent and seamless experience in-store or online with insights into every customer transaction and application service; and being able to leverage those insights to respond to new customer demands and changing behaviors is what victory looked like to the leaders, and their teams’ partnership with us allows us to continually achieve that.

We helped the client – and the industry? Here’s how

Everyone is talking about Industry 4.0 and hoping to invest in it ahead of the curve. We delivered on that expectation and many more.

We’re talking about the entire organization’s network. That was the foundation. However, we also emphasized on security and ensured that the length and breadth of the organization’s attack surface was protected against digital threats by bringing in a significant visibility and observability on a single dashboard, across the network and all of the organization’s applications.

In the supply chain, this meant that robots and automation solutions could be deployed easily and integrated efficiently. In each of the individual supermarkets, this meant that intelligent solutions including cameras and carts would operate seamlessly and staff could work from any device and any location as long as their workflow permitted it. For customers shopping online, this meant that the chain could map the experience it was providing via web and mobile applications and that it could gain a degree of control as far as improving that experience went.

Since we mentioned robotics and automation, I think it’s worth highlighting the fact that it is possible to deploy these technologies with more efficiency and lower costs today than ever before. In the client’s warehouses, we leveraged Wi-Fi6 technology to connect the robots and used electronic shelf tagging built natively into the cloud agent on top of programmable infrastructure, making it an incredibly smart edge computing use case that was both innovative and scalable.

From a security standpoint, we’ve made it possible for the client to natively authenticate and to have centralized policies that allow certain devices to only talk to the servers they need and not amongst themselves – making audit trails simpler and defense more robust.

Webex had a major role to play as well in the transformation of our client, not least because the drive to adopt hybrid workstyles has put a renewed emphasis on information sharing, communicating effectively, and collaborating efficiently – and doing is all securely.

Webex is critical to their workflow now and helps share real-time updates across different teams, including with thousands of external suppliers. Providing the resiliency and scale needed to reliably connect teams to make informed decisions has proved vital.

Truth be told, the client’s pursuit of excellence in their journey to building future-forward supermarkets meant they had to supersize their digital infrastructure and security. While this involved a number of solutions, the client was committed to their vision and confident in our technology experience, our diverse portfolio, and our ability to deliver results. Together, we know we’ve moved the needle in the right direction – for our customers and their customers. And of course, the industry.