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Mobility pushes Neiman Marcus to up its networking game


Digital disruptors continue to change the pace of retail — and Neiman Marcus is ready.

Like many retailers, the luxury department store chain continues to introduce more mobile technology at store-level, a move that supports both in-store operations and consumer-driven tasks, from browsing through procurement.

“It is a trend that requires our network to be a mission-critical lifeline at every store,” said Scott Emmons, head of the Neiman Marcus Innovation Lab (iLab).

The chain’s mobility movement began in 2010 when associates used “rugged handhelds” to manage inventory. However, it began putting iPhones into associates’ hands as far back as five years ago. Within this timespan, the chain has improved the functionality of its mobile technology, including adding apps that give associates access to data right at their fingertips — an initiative that helps associates to meet customer expectations, thus improving customer service.

“Gone are the days when networks had to carry point-of-sale [POS] transaction data from the store to the data center,” Emmons said. “The amount of data is bigger and it moves faster, and retailers industry-wide must wrap their arms around how to support it.”

For Neiman Marcus, this meant creating a network that could securely deliver data from devices to “the point of need” — a process that becomes exacerbated as technology continues to modernize, and user demand increases.

As these factors began putting new strains on networks, Neiman Marcus started exploring how to expand its networking capabilities not just to support current business operations, but also to service “the customer of the future,” Emmons said.

Focusing on existing mobile services, such as geo-location technology to interactive digital signage and other interactive smart technologies, “all of these require network connections and increased bandwidth,” he said.

As a result, Emmons began designing what he calls the company’s “next generation network.” In its earliest iteration, which dates back to November 2011, the chain upgraded its wired network and switching equipment.

However, as handheld form factors gave way to smart devices, and wireless mobility quickly became the industry standard, Neiman Marcus began an upgrade strategy that included adding Wi-Fi at all store locations enterprise-wide.

“This was a big project to get in place, one that took a few years to complete,” he said.

This is an understandable timeline given how “spread out our stores are across North America, and the challenging networking environment that our distribution centers posed.”

The chain focused on an Aruba Networks Wi-Fi, and still managed a wired infrastructure comprised of several providers, including Cisco, Alcatel and Aruba for switching and routing.

The chain started implementing busier stores first, then kept up a steady pace until all 42 Neiman Marcus stores, two Bergdorf Goodman stores, 29 Last Call outlet centers, 13 Last Call Studios, and four CUSP stores, six distribution centers and its corporate campus were completely deployed in 2015.

Today, the chain is armed with a robust Wi-Fi network complete with a complex pathology that delivers redundant data connections to two diverse providers, “so if one of the wide area network [WAN] connections goes offline, they still have a means to conduct business,” he added. “It is an ongoing project that is constantly evolving, and thus never finished.”

These proactive efforts keep Neiman Marcus ahead of the curve, as many chains are still playing catch-up when it comes to adding wireless connections at store-level. Specifically, 51% of retailers added in-store wireless networks this year as a means of supporting performance management, POS operations and product related tasks, compared to a mere 25% in 2015. However, only 23% extend wireless networks to customers, compared to 19% last year, according to the “2016 Store Benchmark” from Retail Systems Research.

While Emmons didn’t share specific results, the next-generation network provides better reliability, more agility and faster speeds, all of which improve performance on smart device functionality.

“Our overall goal was to build a network that could satisfy the customer of the future, but in reality, that was table stakes,” he said. “It is a pre-requisite to remain relevant in a very data- and mobility-centric world.”
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