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Our VP of Energy and Operations, Tim Burke, looks at why, when it comes to turbulent times, retail tech has to be flexible.

It feels like a lifetime ago that we were lining up outside of supermarkets without facemasks, wondering if we’d be able to get our hands on a roll of toilet paper. On reflection, despite the sense of hysteria at the time, the speed at which supermarkets adapted to the panic buying and social distancing measures of early lockdown was truly impressive. The seamless way in which stores were able to reconfigure themselves to successfully and safely keep the public fed and shelves stocked during some very unsettling times was remarkable, but not by any means a lucky coincidence. Technology and innovation have proved fundamental to both enabling changes to store operations and helping supermarkets to integrate new processes quickly and efficiently.

The food retail sector has been particularly progressive in its adoption of new technology over the past few years. Retailers have been integrating technologies, such as IoT (Internet of Things) solutions, into their stores for some time now. Those retailers who already had digital strategies in place had the capability to react and implement changes rapidly in order to step up to the unforeseen challenges that the lockdowns have triggered. Advanced, multifaceted solutions, such as the IMS Evolve IoT solution, has provided retailers with the agility to successfully pivot their services and operations, meaning that they were ultimately better prepared to scale up existing business operations, such as increased delivery slots and additional click and collect services.

However, with the foreseeable looking likely to remain turbulent and the ever-evolving rules and guidelines causing chaos, retailers are looking to permanently integrate additional business models that meet these new demands and address potential future challenges in a sustainable and futureproofed way. This means the requirement for digital transformation in the sector is larger than ever and retailers are searching for proven, robust and resilient digital solutions that will enable an increased level of flexibility to their processes and operations.

For example, since lockdown, many supermarkets are looking to repurpose existing space – or in some cases even acquire new space – to create dedicated warehouses, storage and refrigeration units for the increased demand in delivery and click and collects. These local warehouses allow for a much higher degree of logistical efficiency which increases both the volume and availability of these services. Traditionally, the introduction of new infrastructure into an existing IoT solution would require vigorous planning, high initial costs and asset downtime during installation and maintenance. These linear digital solutions often require manufacturer-specific hardware which gives retailers much less flexibility in choice of infrastructure – even just a small shift in procedure can require more software and/or hardware and can lead to operations becoming ‘bogged down’ by their own innovation.

However, controls agnostic solutions, such as IMS Evolve, enables assets and infrastructure to be seamlessly integrated into one single platform, regardless of make, model or age, without the requirement of additional hardware. Practically, this means that when a new walk in refrigerator is installed in a local click and collect warehouse, the asset can be quickly integrated into the existing IoT layer, without the need for large additional costs or asset downtime. This ‘plug and play’ approach enables new and additional infrastructure to immediately benefit from the same advanced monitoring and management as the entire store that aids improved food quality and safety whilst driving efficiencies in energy, maintenance and waste.

Additionally, during lockdown, leveraging controls agnostic IoT solutions has allowed retailers to integrate all new technology into one IoT solution, from new refrigeration units through to customer traffic sensor systems to track social distancing, without the need to buy manufacturer-specific hardware or incur significant compatibility costs. These accomplished and adaptable solutions mean that retailers can quickly integrate new business models and additional technologies into their existing operations without the complexity of having multiple controls systems.

The ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances is imperative in any sector, but it is perhaps most critical in a sector like food retail where the public relies on it for access to food and essentials. Our supermarkets have been able to rise to the challenges of the pandemic, aided successfully by the technology that underpins their operations, and the sector will continue to evolve to meet the demands of an uncertain climate. Futureproof digital solutions that enable retailers to quickly and seamlessly integrate new business and engagement models is crucial to overcoming new obstacles created by unexpected events such as lockdown. If the pandemic has highlighted one thing in the food retail sector, it is that a robust, flexible technology solution, that can support its retail customer to innovate at speed and scale, is invaluable in ensuring stability during turbulent times.