Beacon Lighting is hoping a recent network infrastructure upgrade to its 109 retail stores will provide the foundation for a range of digital offerings from smart home demonstration areas to kiosks.
The lighting and ceiling fan retailer, which has been in business 51 years, this year deployed a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) and store wi-fi, both powered by Riverbed.
The SD-WAN project originally came about because the company wanted to make its store network more resilient to connectivity outages.
CIO Mick Tan told iTnews that the store network typically experienced “maybe two [significant] outages a month” to the ADSL2+ links its stores use to connect via VPN to head office’s systems.
These outages typically lasted a few hours, though situations where a store didn’t have a functional ADSL connection for weeks were not unheard of.
Tan - who joined Beacon Lighting back in 2000 - said that, until a year ago, if a store’s connection went down, there was no backup.
“When the ADSL went down, we had nothing,” he said.
“In the last year, we would send the store a cellular device with a SIM card and try to get the store working but that wasn’t ideal.”
For one, because it took time for the cellular router to be sent out from head office, the outage could be over by the time it arrived at the store.
Tan explored options with Beacon’s carrier - Telstra - to run a second ADSL line to each of its stores, and when that was discounted, to provide each store with a “passive backup” 4G service, which would essentially remain dormant until a problem with the store’s primary ADSL line was detected.
This was also discounted because “we were going to be paying high costs per store for something that was just going to sit there as a backup,” Tan noted.
The company finally settled on an SD-WAN setup under which it would run ADSL2 and 4G connectivity to each store, but the links would run in an active-active configuration with traffic prioritised and load-balanced between.
“We can prioritise traffic over the 4G vs the ADSL line and get visibility across all stores as to link performance and quality as well as application usage,” said Andy Suggars, technology director at OPIA - a Riverbed elite partner engaged by Beacon Lighting to help with the project.
“We can steer traffic over preferred paths. In the event of a dropout or other degradation, we can fail that traffic over to 4G seamlessly.
“Traditionally your 4G failover works on an outage basis so if your primary link goes offline, you failover to 4G but quite often you can have issues with latency and packet loss on your primary line which won’t actually invoke a failover to the 4G service.
“The Riverbed SteelConnect [SD-WAN] has path quality tracking so ... if the latency goes past a certain threshold you can fail over using your policies to the 4G service and likewise when the primary line comes back into acceptable performance levels it will seamlessly fail back to that primary service.
“It’s redundancy that maintains proper business continuity rather than redundancy that has an outage and a re-establishment process to get the applications up and running again.”
Suggars said Beacon Lighting also took the opportunity of the SD-WAN deployment to simultaneously roll out IP telephony across its head office and retail store network, pre-empting the switch-off of business ISDN and PSTN services in Australia.
In addition, it deployed a wi-fi network across its stores using Riverbed Xirrus access points, which can be managed from the same console as its SD-WAN.
“From there, I’m sure Beacon is going to get huge benefits,” Tan said.
“We’re doing other things with this network foundation now.”
Digital enhancement of retail experience
Beacon Lighting is using the wi-fi network to trial tablets for its sales associates that allow them to pull up detailed product information when interacting with customers.
“They can look at a model of light and see other colours or how high it needs to sit on the ceiling or what the required radius of space needs to be,” Tan said.
“We’d like to have all this information on the tablets. We needed wi-fi to enable this to happen. We didn’t have wi-fi in the store before this.”
Tan also hopes to allow transactions to be settled on the tablets, turning them into roving point-of-sale devices.
He said there are five stores nationwide that are currently trialling the tablets.
The retailer is also exploring the use of “product extender kiosks”, particularly in stores that have smaller-than-average footprints.
“If you have a small store with a footprint like 600 sqm, we could have kiosks in the stores where the sales associate or customer could look at the full range and families of products,” Tan said.
“Our normal stores are about 700-800 sqm, but small form factor stores would be about 600 sqm, so it’s good if we don’t need to stock every item in a small shop.”
Beacon is also using the wi-fi to create design studios within its stores where it can offer consulting services for customers.
“They bring in their plans and we scan them and look at how we can place lights within the residence for them,” Tan said. “That has been quite a success at the moment.”
Finally, the company is using the wi-fi to create smart lighting and home automation demonstration zones in each of its stores.
“We’ve created areas in the store where we can demonstrate how smart lighting works,” Tan said.
Tan hoped the areas would act as a point of difference in the growing smart home automation market, noting the absence of good demonstration zones at competing electronics retailers.
“If you go to other retailers, you need to go look for smart lighting. They’re on a shelf. Sales has to explain to you how it works,” he said.
“What we’re doing at Beacon is creating an area where we put on all these lights - by Philips and LIFX - in two different areas. We attach them to a Google Home and Alexa and we talk to them.
“We’re actually demonstrating to customers how it works and what you need device-wise to have this in your house.”
Tan said that Beacon Lighting will also soon launch its own brand of smart lighting in Australia, highlighting the potential the company saw in the market - and the need to have stores where it could properly showcase the technology.
“I believe we will be the only ones that showcase it this way because we can with the wi-fi we’ve installed,” Tan added.