It’s 8:45 a.m. and Brad arrives to open the store. He fires ups his tablet and looks at yesterday’s sales data and the orders that came in overnight. He also looks at product reviews from the store’s multiple online shop fronts on eBay, Amazon and the store’s own website. As the amount of information is increasing, it’s getting harder to see the patterns.

What’s clear is that stock levels are low for a couple of key product lines, and demand has been increasing over the past few days. That’s going to mean another call to the suppliers to increase the order. The store needs some attention as well. Products in prominent areas are being ignored by shoppers, while items that are popular online aren’t being touched in the store.

Next door, Angela arrives at the same time to open her store. Looking at the dashboard on her tablet, she can see that the new product arrangement in the store has worked well over the last couple of days. Using data from the Wi-Fi network, she’s been tracking which parts of the store receive the most traffic, then ensuring those areas are stocked with products that appeal to the core demographics she serves.

Angela combines that demographic data, which comes from the app that supports the store’s loyalty program, with sales data and information from social media to ensure she has adequate stock to fulfill demand. She has also automated processes so orders are automatically sent to suppliers when stock levels are low. That means Angela can focus on helping customers when they come into the store rather than following up on administrative tasks.

Brad is lucky that Angela is not a direct competitor.

Creating a frictionless architecture

Today’s retail world is fast moving and increasingly dependent on data. The days of being able to handle everything manually are gone, since stores are expected to present shoppers with a great customer experience, whether they are in the store or come in over a website, an online marketplace or via social media. And if customers start their journey online, they expect to continue that journey when they call or walk into the store, without having to start over.

Retailers use a number of different, but connected, systems. Inventory systems are linked to in-store point-of-sale and online sales systems so there’s a single view of inventory. In the early days of online retail, many retailers maintained separate stock for each sales channel. But customers today expect a single view so they can choose whether to come into a store or purchase online.

With so many different systems and applications available, retailers need to ensure data can move through them seamlessly by choosing applications that can interact over APIs. That way, actions in one system, such as a sale at the point of sale, will trigger events in other systems, such as inventory and finance. By ensuring that everything works together, retailers can eliminate events that get in the way of good service, such as customers trying to order products only to find they are unavailable.

Retailers looking at how to transition to a connected and frictionless architecture need to focus on several key areas, such as mobility, cloud applications, robust testing and — importantly — security. A vital element of the shopping experience for customers is trust. They need to be assured their data is being held safely in systems that are compliant with relevant standards such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR); that all data is encrypted when at rest or in transit; and that payments are managed safely.

With such a massive volume of data from different sources, retailers need tools to help them discern meaning so they can make the best decisions about everything from ordering patterns to what products to place on which shelves. That’s where machine learning and artificial intelligence become useful. The idea is not to replace workers with technology but to help them.

Focusing on the omnichannel experience

Secure, connected systems can remove the friction for customers and enable sales associates and business owners to focus on customers. A well-designed omnichannel experience delivers a seamless and convenient service that works no matter where the customer is.

Within stores, it’s now possible to track customer movements using Wi-Fi access points or Bluetooth beacons. That provides store operators with the ability to see what areas in a store are frequented most so spaces can be better designed to accommodate shoppers. When customers arrive in the store, they can be alerted to special deals at the exact moment they will be most interested. And they can use apps to order and pay from anywhere in the store so they don’t have to queue up and wait for a sales associate.

Online, the customer’s experience needs to be flawless whether using a computer, tablet or smartphone. New innovations such as augmented reality can let purchasers try on clothes virtually, design a customised bicycle or provide guidance on how to choose products.

It’s all about optimising the customer experience. And that experience isn’t just about selling clothes or toys or widgets. A great ordering and service experience can make the difference for restaurants and other retail segments as well.

Wherever there’s a customer searching for a product or experience, there’s an opportunity to make that experience frictionless — and therefore more positive.