IoT solutions for (post-)COVID retail facility use cases

George Das, Global Solutions Architect at Schneider Electric, takes us through the needs and pain points of retailers as they reopen their stores and the retail solutions, enabling them to tackle the challenges of COVID while continuing digital transformation of their business.

The retail industry is hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 crisis. As the epicenter shifted from one region to another, we saw similar patterns occurring in the sector across the globe, with the inevitable local differences.

Many stores were forced to close, retailers tried to move to online sales if they didn’t offer e-commerce already, and next, they gradually reopened with those retail sub-segments offering ‘essential goods’ typically allowed to do so first.

George Das, Global Solutions Architect at Schneider Electric

While the sector, in general, continues to suffer from the impact, retailers with a higher degree of digitalization and further on their journey of digital business transformation, often fared better. At the same time, the effect of the pandemic also has led to an acceleration of transformation across all sectors.

Although retailers that can do so continue to step up their focus on online capabilities as they revisit their business models, the importance of physical stores remains crucial. Yet, the role of stores also shifts as it started doing since long before the pandemic. And in retail facilities, from supermarkets to convenience stores, the crisis equally accelerates the adoption of digital solutions enabling data-driven retail capabilities and use cases powered by IoT technologies.

Many of these IoT use cases initially revolve(d) around the measures which need(ed) to be taken before reopening shops, ensuring a safe environment, enabling physical distancing, and protecting staff and customers in general.

However, the purposes for which the data, solutions, and technologies driving them are used, stretch further than that. Leveraging IoT, data analytics, and ‘smart’ technologies, retailers at the same time build the foundations that allow them to optimize, adapt their business, and in the end, continue their journey of change. In other words: it’s a matter of prioritization and thinking ahead at the same time.

People-counting sensors enable you to enforce physical distancing but also to avoid queues, run your fire codes, better plan staffing, adapt ventilation patterns based on occupancy, and take crucial decisions, for instance, on opening times and cost savings.

From remote access to safety, regulatory compliance, and protection of shoppers and staff

What are the use cases and needs driving this acceleration in the context of retail facilities? What are retailers looking for mostly? And how can they realize it?

We had an interesting conversation with George Das on these topics as economies gradually started to open up again in most parts of the world. George is a Global Solutions Architect at Schneider Electric and, as such, regularly in touch with the retail market. Along with colleagues and partners, he inventoried the needs and use cases for retail facilities, translating them in modular technological solutions with both the immediate impact of the crisis and – future – transformation journeys in mind.

Before looking at those needs, technologies, and solutions to help retailers during and after the crisis, we need to provide a bit of additional context. In 2019, Schneider Electric launched a retail specialization program for its EcoXpert channel partners. During a lockdown, Marine Petry, who’s in charge of the program, developed a digital training curriculum on the company’s IoT cloud-based solution that enables remote maintenance and operations, and allows store managers to concentrate on their core tasks.

It’s a topic here as well since store managers and retail staff more than ever need to be able to focus on the business, the consumer and the brand, without having to worry about issues such as maintenance or failing equipment. Moreover, several of the use cases and solutions are tied to it or integrated with it. So, time for that overview and interview.

The demand for retail use cases and solutions, including people counting and remote applications, were on the rise before the current crisis; COVID-19 accelerated this demand in the same way it accelerated digital transformation in other areas.

George, thank you for your time. You identified real uses cases for IoT-enabled solutions that retailers can implement to answer to the direct consequences of the crisis and post-crisis needs. How did you conduct this exercise, and what have you learned?

George Das: We put our heads together to brainstorm and speak with the market, end-users, and regulatory bodies. The core issues that came out, as a result, could be divided into three categories of use cases:

  1. ‘Regulations’: what retailers were enforced to do as they opened up again which is mainly about people monitoring and control;
  2. ‘Protection’: effective measures to protect customers and staff and to make them feel safe at the same time including environmental controls;
  3. ‘Ongoing’, which points to the back end or preventative support and, as mentioned, how we can do smarter things in terms of, for instance, remote access, thus minimizing the need for maintenance people and others to be at stores physically when such can be avoided.

In the latter category of ‘ongoing,’ there are, however, also some specific use cases for particular groups of retailers. An important one for chemists and pharmacies, for instance, concerns everything regarding refrigeration. You can imagine that when a fridge breaks down, it takes some time to get the medication that can’t be used anymore back in. When supply chains are interrupted, that can easily take several weeks, a significant issue, and even more so during a pandemic.

Obviously, in areas such as food retail, you also don’t want additional business disruptions in tough times, but with medication, it’s even more critical.

EcoStruxure for Retail - retail solutions for post-COVID retail use cases

Retail solutions and use cases to tackle COVID-19 challenges and continue the journey of retail transformation

Before the interview, you sent us a list with the use cases and an overview of different – modular – solutions, which all respond to a different set of use cases. None of the solutions are only for pure COVID-19 retail challenges. A deliberate choice?

George Das: Indeed. During the thought and brainstorming process, we always looked at the use cases from the perspective of solutions that retailers needed during COVID and post-COVID but also keeping in mind how their solutions will run through the lifecycle of the retail store.

Retailers are already affected and had to make investments to reopen. One-off solutions would also make little sense since many retailers were already in the process of transformation, automation, and optimization. So we needed to serve several goals, including, for instance, cost savings, a better shopping experience, etc.

A typical example of a simple solution for an essential use case that can be used to achieve more is calculating the number of customers that are allowed to enforce physical distancing. Retailers can use the same people-counting sensors to run fire codes since many buildings and retailers have such a fire code that, in the case of retail, mandates that only some people are in the store at any one time.

Moreover, the same data can be used by retailers to better plan their staffing because they gain insights into how many people are in their store at different times and show when the real peak periods are. Going a step further, they can even compare that data with the energy costs and sales data to start making crucial data-driven business decisions.

They could, for instance, decide to adapt opening times if they see that on specific days during specific hours, few people come in, and they waste more money on energy and keeping the store open.

By sharing live occupancy data on their site, retail chains can promote visibility into their stores, offering a service to their customers and reducing the need for staff at the entry while aligning with local regulations and ensuring a safe shopping experience.

Certainly for stores in segments where people are still more hesitating or right after reopening, this is essential. But also for others: in a blog on the training for our channel partners on Facility Expert Multi-site for retailers, Marine Petry mentions research that shows retailers need to accelerate cost and cash containment and implement continuous cost improvement. Data-driven retail here will mean that facility managers keep an eye on the performance of stores, and probably this cost focus will last, with decisions on opening times or even the viability of a store.

In fact, before COVID, there was already a definite rise in demand for people counting, remote applications, and so forth in retail. It’s one of several reasons why last year the retail specialization program was launched. However, there was no real push or urgency for retailers. That’s something that has changed with COVID-19.

How occupancy data and automated access control can serve multiple retail goals at once

Clear. In terms of priorities and timing, physical distancing, and being compliant with sustainability regulations come first. It’s also your first set of use cases. You just mentioned some of the additional possibilities people-counting sensors enable, but there’s even more it seems. What can you tell us about that solution?

George Das: Sure. A first solution serves three use cases: the need to conform to regulations and ensure safety guidelines are followed for enclosed spaces, enhancing physical distancing, and assisting staff in managing people flow.

So, this is where the people counting sensor comes in. Once it’s installed, which is easy to do, it will notify the store owner when there are too many people inside.

But we wanted to take it a step further than just notifications. Since the occupancy data is there, retailers can also leverage it in other ways. They can share it on their website so that people can check how busy a store is before going and come at a later point in time, thus enhancing customer service and experiences.

Moreover, this way, you can avoid long queues and don’t need to have people counting visitors if there’s a rule on the maximum number of visitors. And, of course, you can also use other means to display the occupancy data (e.g., a physical occupancy indicator in the store displaying a green or red light) and, as mentioned, can use the data for different goals such as planning as well.

A second solution – and this shows the modularity of the approach and how retailers can start small and expand later – adds components enabling automated access control based on occupancy without the need for staff intervention at the entry.

Doors can be automatically locked and reopened based upon the number of people inside. This minimizes people interaction at the door and again serves additional use cases. Since the activation of the door locks is touchless, you have another way to prevent the spread of contaminants by reducing common surface uses.

Contactless automation activation of door locks enables access control based on occupancy. It is one of several retail solutions retailers ask for in the context of touchless solutions to minimize the use of common surfaces. The solution can use automated doors to avoid touching the doors/buttons but also be retrofitted in existing doors.

Retailers are calling for things like touchless door handles. So, here we also can meet the needs in several use cases in the ‘protection’ category.

And if retailers want, they can go again a step further with a third solution that strengthens the touchless part even more with contactless light switches, and contactless activation of the store’s HVAC system.

On top of that, since here we’re connecting quite some parts, we’ve added use cases from the ‘ongoing category’ to this solution because here it makes even more sense to provide remote maintenance and operations through a cloud interface.

It adds value for remote management since retailers try to do more with fewer people and limit staff inside. Remote staff can monitor and access HVAC systems or lighting control systems and only come in when there’s a real need, and everyone in the store can focus on the business and customers.

So, that’s the first set of solutions whereby retailers can start small, first address regulations, which is mandatory, and then in two stages move into the ‘ongoing’ and operations.

Remote maintenance/access/engagement and automated, contactless applications are in high demand since retailers want to work with a ‘skeleton staff’ and remote and automated retail solutions enable them to do less with more people.

We briefly touched upon Facility Expert before. Does all this integrate with the platform and its apps? And can EcoXpert partners already offer this to retailers?

George Das: If retailers want, they can indeed get everything in the Facility Expert environment, for instance, pushing the people counting data in the system and then use those for other purposes, as mentioned.

Concerning our EcoXpert partners, I’m finalizing the various ‘packages’ with these solutions to make it easy to implement without them requiring too much installation expertise. It needs to be simple for partners but also retailers themselves so they can get up and running fast. By the time this interview is published, that will be finalized, and I invite interested companies and, of course, existing EcoXperts to get in touch with our retail team via Schneider Electric’s Exchange or directly, for instance, with Marine.

Ensuring business continuity and avoiding wastage when the stakes are higher than ever

That’s clear. These seem like solutions that can be a fit for most types of retailers. There are also segments with particular needs. Previously you mentioned the challenges regarding refrigeration, among others, in pharmacies. What did you do there?

George Das: Correct. In fact, for the different subsegments of retail, I made an overview with all the use cases and far more details on requirements and functionalities since it’s a broad market indeed with convenience stores, pharmacies, specialty retail stores, food, non-food, etc.

With regards to smaller stores like pharmacies or convenience stores where you want to monitor refrigeration because it’s critical for business continuity, the leading concern retailers had was knowing if their system would trip of had tripped while they weren’t there.

This is always important for things like food safety, to avoid waste, and for business continuity, but with COVID, it proved to be critical. We have done this with a pharmacy chain in Australia because of the long turnaround time to get the new medication they were facing in case a fridge tripped.

It’s a straightforward solution. We added trip alerts for their core machines and gave them a mobile app to turn on their equipment, schedule their lights, remotely unlock their doors when they come in etc. So, there’s no need to have interaction with switches and circuits, everything happens via a mobile button, and this also again supports the need for touchless surfaces to prevent spread.

It’s also an ideal solution for smaller stores and a quick win because today, around 80 percent of such stores with fridges don’t know when their critical equipment stops working. We monitor refrigeration temperatures, so they get an alert when there are early indications of a malfunction.

Moreover, it’s not just refrigerators. We can do the same for cooking equipment and critical loads in other smaller retail facilities such as fast-food restaurants; you name it. All critical circuits, including HVAC and IT power, are monitored, and store managers get alerted if a circuit is overloaded or tripped.

You mention IT power for the IT systems. Are there any additional solutions for IT systems in retail stores?

George Das: Well, that is the next value add to that solution since most retailers have POS (Point Of Sale) machines, and if power goes off and they lose all their sales data, that’s, of course, another big pain point.

So, here, we offer UPSs for their refrigeration, IT equipment, or POS machines and systems. It’s a module they can add or get separately, depending on the use case and their main concerns, and that protects the core critical pieces of equipment they need to be up at all times.

Real-time monitoring of critical equipment with money-saving alerts on issues such as food safety issues, refrigerant leaks that lead to inventory loss, and potential loss of sales data before transmission to the cloud, were already critical in pre-COVID times. Now, with the importance of cash containment, continuous cost improvement, the data-driven recovery in retail, and potential supply chain issues, it is even more so. Unfortunately, most smaller stores haven’t connected equipment such as refrigerators yet.

HVAC and environmental control to reduce longevity of contaminants: UVGI duct lamps and ventilation filters in an active monitoring solution

In the ‘protection’ category, you previously covered the prevention of the spread of contaminants by reducing common surface uses. Ensuring airborne particles are not spread quickly through ventilation systems is another essential use case on your list, bringing us to HVAC. There is also quite some research regarding ventilation and the spread of but also potential fight against coronavirus. What do you offer here?

George Das: The ventilation requirements and use cases indeed are essential. They have been for retailers since long before the evidence of airborne transmission you refer to. Very early on, when we spoke with retailers, it became clear that when they renew their lease or are moving into a new place, for instance, they want air purification and air treatment to be installed.

And it’s not just in retail. In commercial buildings, tenants now want to have all this in place as well. It’s again something that already started before COVID, but in terms of retail, the attention for the filters and ventilation patterns in retail facilities obviously is very high now.

Based on the number of people in a retail store, we can adapt the ventilation patterns and ventilate more when occupancy data show it’s needed. This way, we can absorb more of the particles and get cleaner air out. For ventilation filters in retail spaces, we decided to go for Activated Carbon Filters (ACF) instead of HEPA filters which are too expensive for retailers. They also don’t have the back-end to support that, and HEPA filters are highly regulated (editor’s note: HEPA filtration systems are more used in environments such as hospital operating rooms).

UVGI duct lamps maximize the airborne kill of dangerous pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and mold spores.

However, we partnered with UVGI manufacturers (‘Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation’; bacterial killing UV light), adding our technology to deploy a fully monitored and filtered UVGI solution for the retail segment.

The UVGI system itself focuses concentrates on the actual ventilation filter to make sure it kills whatever particles are trapped and passing through. This way, we double-treat the air, and the air that comes back in the store is cleaner than before.

Retailers can control the overall system based on the number of people in the store – or store opening systems. Additionally, we have switches that enable us to say, via Facility Expert, when a filter needs to be changed once the airflow is reduced too much, which means it’s getting clogged. This remote monitoring of pressure enables us to ensure optimal performance.

The solution has sparked much interest, and not just in retail of course. The data from test labs regarding UVGI are very promising, and we already offer it since it purifies the air through the filters, improves indoor air quality, and adds the active capabilities of the UVGI to kill particles from the air. By adding our technologies we adapt it for use cases in several circumstances. This is also something that will matter post-COVID with the increased attention for healthy buildings and phenomena such as sick building syndrome, which we’ve seen for several years now. The system further, for instance, reduces sick leave and increases food safety.

We added our technology to a duct-mounted HVAC UVGI system for intensive airstream UV-C irradiation with high-output germicidal lamps and combined the UVGI system and ACF (Activated Carbon) Filters into an active monitoring solution, with an ability to connect it to EcoStruxure Facility Expert Maintenance Cloud.

The requirements for ventilation, humidity levels, and so forth differ per type of facility. Now, back to all retail use cases. As you said, the retail sector has several sub-segments, and some of the retail solutions are more relevant for specific segments than others. Some examples, perhaps?

George Das: Sure. I mentioned the example of refrigeration in pharmacies and food retail before. But there’s, of course, more indeed. So, to make it easy for partners and customers, we broke everything down into these specific sub-segments in the retail space.

Some examples: in distribution centers, we typically have 24/7 operations with a high need for business continuity, and there can be much staff. This means that you want to ensure continuous power, minimize surface interactions in densely used areas, monitor critical temperature and systems, ensure the safety of staff and customers with air treatment using UVGI lamps in HVAC systems, and so on.

Supermarkets are typically more food-centric, so here people counting based on aisles is essential as well. In specialty retail, there usually is no refrigeration, but there are needs for air purification, wireless control of lighting systems, the list goes on.

We did this exercise for all sub-segments, and our partners are welcome to get in touch so they can see what we have in store for various use cases, scenarios, and retail segments. This way, they can help retailers reopen, remain open, and focus on their business.

George, thank you very much for your time and insights on how to get the retail industry back on track and far more.

Disclosure: this interview fits in a content collaboration with Schneider Electric. All images are property and courtesy of their respective mentioned owners.