This article published November 2017. For latest news THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

How can IT infrastructure aid c-stores?

Nick East, CEO of Zynstra answers questions on their new IT infrastructure and how it can improve efficiency in C-Stores.

What is the new product and what does it do?

The retail battleground has moved to the edge Ė where retailers and customers meet face to face. In the past, the all-consuming attention on the online battleground has come at the cost of the retail edge Ė instore where customer loyalty can be built or lost. But as retailers seek new ways to increase operational efficiency and deliver new customer experiences, requiring new powerful and ever-changing instore applications, the edge will become the new powerhouse of innovation and competitive advantage.

The Zynstra Retail Edge solution is an IT infrastructure designed from the ground up for retail branches. Itís comprised of two integrated components:

The Intelligent Control Plane which enables the secure provisioning, management, control and updating of hundreds or thousands of servers across a complete retail branch estate. It simplifies and accelerates what would otherwise be complex IT tasks, such as rolling out new applications and sites, or keeping in-store IT up to date and secure, while ensuring a consistent, secure IT environment in every store.

The Intelligent Edge is a server virtualization solution located in the retail store or branch. Itís a virtualized, edge-scale platform for in-store applications specified by the retailer and provides typical infrastructure services such as file management, firewall, user management, secure networking and system back-up. Peripheral applications that you would have in the store such as POS, CCTV, RFID or managerís back office PC, are deployed on a segmented LAN.

The combination of an Intelligent Control Plane and Intelligent Edge replaces the need for multiple server and storage devices on-site while ensuring the full lifecycle of the server and its application can be managed through a single cloud-based service. The degree of monitoring and control also negates the costly and resource-intensive requirement of sending out IT teams to each site to diagnose and implement fixes. Our new product automates the deployment of new IT across a distributed branch estate, and is certified to the most demanding PCI-DSS audit levels

How can it help in the convenience sector specifically?

Convenience stores are sophisticated and dynamic retail outlets. In an era of new expectations of speed, unique consumer experiences and the importance of the omni-channel, convenience stores must deliver a superior experience, more services and faster innovations at the retail edge, while increasing operational efficiency and managing security and compliance. To meet todayís customer expectations, they need sophisticated, easy to use IT that encompasses kitchen management, customer order terminals, digital signage, the fulfillment of mobile orders and targeted marketing. Whatís surprising, given the dynamic nature of this market, is that, to date, the IT industry has not responded with solutions and technology that meet its unique needs. IT professionals in this space complain of having to make do with scaled down datacenter solutions, or running to stand still, constantly patching legacy systems. Edge IT has played second fiddle, while retail IT investment has focused on the online customer experience. But the edge is the new frontline in the battle to increase customer value, and IT teams need an infrastructure to power retail innovation and deliver a differentiated customer experience at the edge Ė in the convenience store.

Zynstraís intelligent infrastructure delivers edge-scale hardware and software, managed from the cloud, and dramatically simplifies retail IT and reduces costs. Convenience Store Operators can quickly and efficient roll out new customer applications across a network on hundreds or thousands of C-stores, rapidly deploy new stores as required, keep in-store software patched and up to date, reduce support and management overheads, enhance in-store security, and reduce the cost and effort of achieving PCI-DSS compliance in branch.

What issues in convenience retail could it help to solve?

Traditional C-store infrastructure of PCs, servers and devices assembled over time can present real operational issues, and often cannot serve expanding business applications. Multiple computing appliances running multiple applications ó manually managed, site by site, application by application ó demand expensive and high-skill systems integration and support effort. These inflexible IT systems make it difficult to quickly deploy new stores and new lines of business in response to rapidly changing customer demands.

And the convenience store sector expanding as it meets the demands of consumers wanting a convenient and accessible Ďone stop shopí, and rapidly rolling out in-store IT is a key factor in determining time to revenue for new stores. C-stores need to have an infrastructure that is simple to replicate and roll out efficiently across multiple sites.

In addition, the challenge of manually keeping edge systems up to date and secure with the latest patches and upgrades across 100ís or 1000ís of sites is enormous. The edge is a hostile environment, and you need to be up to date to minimize risk, and ensure compliance with PCI-DSS requirements.

Also, itís important to bear in mind that most C-stores have zero on-site technical support, increasing the burden on overstretched IT teams. As requirements for advanced edge applications grows, new approaches are required to reduce this burden and stop IT being a bottleneck to innovation at the edge.

An example of how the product works day-to-day (for staff and customers)

Letís look at a few examples. Firstly, today, if a C-store retailer is looking to upgrade POS systems, they may have to configure and deploy each site separately ó making costs high and frequent delays inevitable. With the Zynstra solution all software upgrades can be applied and tested centrally, and then securely rolled out from the center across the network of C-stores, reducing the risk of error and the cost of operation.

Secondly, often, if a retailer wants to roll out a new application to deliver a new customer experience, for example coupon-less targeted marketing, a new server would be commissioned in every C-store to accommodate the new application. This leads to hardware and software expenditure, as well as expensive site visits to install and commission. Because Zynstra Retail Edge is virtualized, new applications can be accommodated on the existing server. In addition, new applications can be tested and rolled out centrally, with on-site support limited to peripheral installation and minimal commissioning. This can rapidly reduce time to market for new customer experiences, and reduce cost.

And finally, letís look at PCI-DSS compliance. In-branch compliance is table stakes. With our solution, retailers can leverage our certification to reduce the time and cost in achieving certification, rather than starting from scratch in-house.

What does the future of convenience retail look like and what part is technology to play?

C-store IT is at a tipping point, and demands new, innovative solutions, not the force fit of datacenter solutions or patched up legacy IT. The new battleground in retail is at the edge, with retailers wanting to utilize the digitization of the physical store for competitive advantage. This is a customer battle to deliver a differentiated experience across all their channels, an automation battle to drive efficiencies, and a now constant security battle to fight off threats.

So important is improving the customer experience that, C-stores must be constantly remodeled to ensure that the shopping experience remains fresh and engaging. Today, this means an increasing flow of new applications into C-stores to deliver new experiences. IT is therefore fundamental in rising to this customer experience challenge. C-stores are defined by the customer experience they deliver: quick, easy, and reflecting our busy lifestyle. In-store IT solutions must reflect and enable this core business value. They must support an omni-channel experience so that customers can choose how they buy; perhaps ordering on-line and picking up on the way home, or ordering while at the pump and picking up when the fuel is paid for, or many other mobile driven customer interaction scenarios. To achieve this IT solutions must be securely integrated with the cloud, but must retain in-store speed of response and reliability, so that retailers can have peace of mind that the customer transaction will be efficiently completed in real time

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