Retail: How “Edge-to-Cloud” is finding its way into supermarkets

Digital transformation as a priority for businesses has been the theme of the last decade. But in the early 2020s, in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, digital transformation came into full swing. Companies that were on a five- or even ten-year digital transformation roadmap were suddenly trying to make sweeping changes in five to 10 weeks.

At ZDNET, we dive deep into the technologies driving digital transformation. Most of our stories focus on technology, from AI and cloud to mobile and edge computing.

In this article, we’ll do it a little differently. Rather than starting with technology and what you can do with it, let’s visit a prototypical company and look at all the technology it may need to integrate to meet its growth and profitability goals.

Since many of these initiatives are confidential within companies, in this article we will discuss a fictional chain of retail stores that sell home and building products. Let’s call it “For the house”. This allows us to delve into some trade secrets that a real company might not like to reveal publicly.

Case study: “For at home”

Basically, Pour la Maison Home-by-Home stores need to manage normal payment and customer transactions. While this is a practice common to almost all businesses, it is also one that is steeped in technology and innovation.

Each checkout transaction triggers a multitude of data updates. The inventory of each product purchased must be deducted, which may trigger a new order or transfer from warehouse to store. This decision can be passed on to a sales representative or taken over by the AI, which considers a wide range of prices and availability around the world to make the best decision.

Data about customers, stores and regions is fed into an analytics engine to give product managers insight into buying trends and potentially uncover new trends that would not be apparent without access to live data.

The advantages of RFID and microservices

And since most homeware stores are equipped with wireless shelf labels (tiny displays that act like labels by telling customers the price of an item), another AI process takes into account the sale rate, demand, and available inventory so you dynamically reduce may or may increase prices in store aisles or run a promotion.

Globally, the retailer must track worldwide supply chain issues and consider weather, political and supply chain analysis to ensure goods are where they need to be when they need them. AI also plays a role in this area. In fact, we will see AI play an increasingly important role throughout Pour la Maison’s network and supply chain.

By combining API access and microservices with big data and real-time analytics, Pour la Maison and its suppliers are able to address the ever-changing terrain of international supply and demand, changing suppliers, orders and promotions over time based on availability and logistics .

Pour la Maison has invested heavily in the “edge to cloud” concept

The company has thousands of stores ranging in size from 10,000 to 15,000 square meters that carry 30,000 to 60,000 products depending on the market in which they operate. To keep track of all this inventory, every store uses a variety of IoT tools, including RFID and anti-theft devices. RFID also speeds up checkout with self-checkouts.

In addition, the company uses sensors to manage environmental control (humidity control is essential in some cases) and energy consumption. While Pour la Maison has long had security cameras in stores and car parks, it has recently started channeling video feeds through a series of intelligent vision systems, allowing incidents to be reported immediately and accidents to be secured.

As many processing operations need to be performed in real-time and in each store, Pour la Maison has invested heavily in the “Edge to Cloud” concept. Each store has its own secure computer shelf that acts as a mini data center. Real-time onsite work is processed at the edge (i.e., in each store) and data is constantly streamed from the store to Home Decor’s core data systems and cloud computing operations.

Ecommerce on the sales page

The company practices e-commerce through browsers and a mobile application that helps manage product availability, orders, and the shipping process. With more than 70% of online customers ordering through the mobile app and even using the mobile app in store, the company has invested heavily not only in the quality of the application but also in the integration between the application and the commercial information and the Real-time data coming from the stores to the cloud.

Since 2000, Pour la Maison has converted department stores into dual-use facilities, using them for customer visits during the day and as an e-commerce processing warehouse after hours. The company added autonomous picking and packing robots for night shifts, leading it to rely even more on real-time inventory management, cameras and artificial intelligence. All of these improvements have enabled the company to deliver heavier, more frequently ordered goods directly to in-store customers while dramatically reducing waiting times and shipping costs. Central warehouses that fulfill e-commerce orders still store a few hundred thousand products that are shipped by parcel services.

Earlier this year, Pour la Maison acquired a 450-store competitor and began a massive migration effort to transition them from legacy point-of-sale systems and siled centralized databases to the digital “edge” transformation to the cloud.

End-to-end integration across all stores and vendors

There’s a common working principle that Pour la Maison uses to measure all of its IT decisions: Everything must be integrated, and intelligently. It’s not enough to have constant streams of data from stores to corporate databases.

This data needs to get to the right places at the right time and trigger the right processes. The data flow must also not be in one direction. Data must flow between providers and suppliers, specialist departments and branches and vice versa.

Pour la Maison defines edge computing operations as everything that happens at the store level, but also everything that happens during shipping, on the docks, and even in suppliers’ warehouses. Pour la Maison has systematically refined its choice of suppliers, taking into account the ability for its IT operations to share API data and microservices for an up-to-the-minute global view of operations.

Data center or cloud? Both my captain!

Pour la Maison still operates its own data centers. Two of them manage sensitive information, including employee personal data, financial data, data that needs to be located to comply with GDPR regulations, and information that may impact performance.

But the company is also investing heavily in cloud computing and SaaS implementations. In general, any application that can be deployed in SaaS mode is preferred over the time it would take to build it in-house.

All of this end-to-end integration, from edge to cloud, across branches and carriers, taking into account weather and logistics forecasts and tracking shippers, can be extremely complex. The number of IT systems, accounts, dashboards and management consoles is overwhelming. However, when Pour la Maison decided to make uncompromising digital transformation a core value, the company went in search of vendors who could provide the necessary integration to make it manageable.

Dynamic provisioning and on-demand infrastructure from edge to cloud are key to its solution. So when it adds new resources — like when it had to set up support for the 450-store chain it acquired earlier this year — it doesn’t just rely on transportation infrastructure. Much of the backend functionality can be easily scaled as needed and deployed dynamically.

Seasonal overloads are also accounted for, allowing the company to add approximately 30% more IT infrastructure resources for critical sales periods and then reduce spending during months when customers are focusing on other interests.

Edge to Cloud Platforms

HPE GreenLake is an example of one of the companies offering “edge-to-cloud” services that bring the centralized dashboard, on-demand delivery, and pay-as-you-go benefits of public cloud infrastructure to local IT facilities and Edge provide IT facilities. This is what a company like Pour la Maison needs to be able to start immediately providing services for its new acquisition. There is no ordering and waiting time for new configurations.

Other edge-to-cloud solution providers such as AWS Outpost, Azure Stack, Google Anthos, IBM Cloud Satellite, and Red Hat’s Edge Validated Patterns offer their own version of the edge-to-cloud stack. The bottom line is that IT pros no longer need to silos their solutions to solve problems at different points in their operational infrastructure.

Edge-to-cloud platforms allow for the bundling of entire solutions that provide the benefits of each vendor’s offerings, but without the clutter of many different control consoles and billing requirements. Instead, it is possible to take advantage of the best available solutions, but operate a full hybrid, multi-cloud, multi-vendor, and multi-constituent network as a cohesive whole. The result is not only productivity and cost savings, but also fewer errors and improved overall security.

On to the topic of digital transformation

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