While brick and mortar retailers have been struggling to stay relevant for a few years now, the pandemic delivered one of the greatest blows to their existence. In the new normal, digital transformation is the norm, re-thinking the fundamental network and infrastructure of the organization is necessary, and being customer centric at every touchpoint is non-negotiable.

Cisco’s key customers in the retail space have taken on cutting-edge projects in recent months, and the results are phenomenal. At the core, the transformation agenda in every retail organization is about deploying a feature-rich, dense IT backbone using best-in-class hardware and best-of-breed software – but all that is just the starting point. It all leads to a host of IoT-enabled use cases such as electronic shelf labels (ESLs) which breathe new life into retail, delivering excellent customer experiences in every instance.

Upgrading network hardware and infrastructure seems like a major cost. But it is necessary. In the past, the retail store’s “grid” was designed to support digital scanning of product barcodes at points of sale and maybe offer guests access to WiFi services. That’s not the future.

The future is a retail store that welcomes customers digitally, allows them to use their smartphones to populate shopping lists and enables them to navigate through the aisles to find items on the shelves, helps them find alternative products when preferred items are out of stock, and so on. The store should also be able to offload a customer onto its wireless network in areas where cell coverage is poor. Inside the store, the network needs to support a variety of connected devices – including ESLs.

The reality is that ecommerce and in-store experiences must converge, and it’ll all be enabled by a modernized network and better infrastructure. Cisco’s WiFi 6 is a great example of this because it covers large spaces, provides reliable connectivity, and supports a significantly large number of devices at any given point of time. But that’s no longer the future, it’s the need of the hour today.

What are ESLs and why are they important?

Electronic Shelf Labels or ESLs are simply digital display tags that go on shelves. They’re connected to the retailer’s network and can be controlled remotely.

Think of that for a minute. Thanks to ESLs, retail administrators can control prices of items in their stores, offer deals, and even act as beacons for customers looking for specific items in large stores – all without any manual intervention or chance of human error. That is of significant importance to anyone in the retail industry.

Let’s talk about specifics of ESL deployment. In the traditional scenario, the retailer would need to deploy electronic shelf labels as well as ESL “gateways” (think of them as access points for labels) or add USB dongles/PCI add-on cards to their existing wi-fi APs.

This is in addition to the existing wi-fi infrastructure it has in place. Sometimes, an on-prem price update server needs to be set up as well. All of this involves cable runs, additional PoE switch ports, IT security provisioning and monitoring, and labor, meaning additional costs.

Further, maintenance is an added ongoing cost which rises in direct proportion to the complexity of the ESL deployment.

Cisco’s team always works to future-proof its customers. As a result, our ESL solution is simple. We provide a unified connectivity layer, allowing customers to leverage our access points as ESL “gateways” through the IoT radio in the device to control electronic shelf labels, push price updates via the cloud, and so on, all without requiring an on-prem server.

Of course, the device can also continue to provide wireless access to store staff and customers – no extra hardware is needed at all.

With our solution, customers benefit from lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and simplified operations. But what’s really attractive is the fact that a simple deployment means fewer outages, lower downtime, and easier maintenance – making life for retail executives who rely on the technology less complicated; In this case, ESLs actually make life better for staff and executives and provides a delightful experience to customers.

Preparing retail for better experiences

The resulting modernized infrastructure described above isn’t built just for ESLs. It also supports other cutting-edge technologies such as Meraki sensors and cameras that enable use cases such as digitally-managed social distancing, in-store security and monitoring, and more, all without exponentially piling up recurring network and infrastructure-related costs.

The long-term retailer’s goal is automation. Maybe not an attendant-free state but definitely not an attendant-dependent state either – the sweet spot is a retail store where attendants can add value to customers, enrich their experience, and leave technology to take care of everything else.

A modernized networks and infrastructure backbone from Cisco along with cutting-edge IoT and other smart or connected solutions such as ESLs and so on are the future. Organizations, however, must act now because the next few months are critical as customers set new habits and make new choices.

Whether you want to enhance customer engagement, improve associate efficiency, automate operations, or drive innovation across the entire value chain, Cisco is your bridge to the new world of retail.


Vish Iyer

Vice President

Cisco Architectures, APJC