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MSPs set up IT services for retail transformations

MSPs can help the retail industry digitally transform in six areas, including customer and employee experience, and emerge stronger after the unique challenges of 2020 and 2021.

After years of dealing with digital disruption, the retail space -- like nearly every other industry -- now contends with a slew of additional obstacles from the lingering effects of COVID-19 and pandemic-related restrictions, economic uncertainty and supply chain challenges.

As a result, some retailers, particularly small to midsize sellers, turn to MSPs to contend with those issues.

Retailers seek MSPs who can deliver more than infrastructure support and tech services to keep sales and back-office systems humming. They're increasingly looking for MSPs who can help them advance their digital transformations, successfully navigate the various market challenges and, ultimately, be a strategic partner.

"Helping these clients build back using more modern digital technology -- ordering kiosks [or] hands-free devices for transactions, IoT for point-of-sale systems, data analytics, e-commerce setups, etc. -- is a possible opportunity area for MSPs with skills in these disciplines," said Carolyn April, senior director of industry analysis at CompTIA.

State of retail managed services

Researchers have published varying figures on the overall size of the current and future MSP market, but overall, they consistently point to growth.

For example, Statista, a market and consumer data firm based in Germany, put the global managed services market at $152.02 billion in 2020 and predicted that it would grow to $274 billion by 2026.

Carolyn AprilCarolyn April

That's good news after the past few years. Many small and midsize retailers struggled, even as e-commerce giants, such as Amazon, benefited from the pandemic restrictions that drove customers to online channels, April said.

"Retail suffered during COVID. It was an industry vertical that, along with hospitality, took a huge hit," she said. "Now, the MSPs are dealing with customers who are struggling to get on their feet. But that's an opportunity for the MSPs. Now might be a clean-slate time for these retailers to think about the digital and transformative technologies they hadn't implemented prior to what's been going on. So, MSPs could be very useful in helping them figure out what they should be doing."

More specifically, retailers need assistance in starting or furthering their digital transformations; implementing and managing expanded endpoint deployments; and collecting and analyzing data, April said.

Top IT services for retail opportunities

April and others noted six key areas of opportunities for MSPs serving the retail industry.

1. Top-notch services

Of course, retailers still require their MSPs to deliver the foundational support and services that keep their operational technologies running. But, now and moving into the future, they're looking more often to their MSPs to provide the best technologies and services, said Miguel Sanchez, senior vice president of professional services for Synoptek, a global systems integrator offering both managed IT services and consulting services.

Moreover, retailers look to MSPs to navigate the dramatic shifts happening within the industry from supply chain interruptions and customer demands, as well as to provide the real-time tech services required for today's always-on digital commerce.

"They used to want just operational capabilities, but now, they really want you to understand the industry, the level of urgency and to provide value-added services beyond the ability to just support the environment," Sanchez said, adding that retailers want MSPs who can deliver to expected outcomes. "You have to start aligning yourself with that thinking and that mindset and to provide full lifecycle thinking around a technology stack."

2. IoT

Retailers generally have some endpoints already deployed, such as point-of-sale systems, yet retailers could benefit from expanding their IoT environments to include more endpoints that help them mature their operations, April said, noting that MSPs delivering such capabilities could benefit their clients' and their own bottom lines.

For example, MSPs could help retailers deploy IoT systems that use sensors and intelligence to support better inventory control.

Shawn MillsShawn Mills

3. Data

MSPs have additional opportunities in a related area: to help retailers derive more value from their data -- whether that data is coming from endpoint devices such as IoT or other sources -- boost revenue, cut costs and scale.

More critical, however, is the ability for MSPs to help retailers bring data and data analysis into the systems "to make data-driven decisions that support the customer," said Shawn Mills, president of Lunavi, an MSP and technology consultancy. "Without that back-office connection to customer experience, it just crashes and burns."

4. Customer experience

Now more than ever, retailers must connect with consumers. However, those connections must be whenever and wherever those customers want, and retailers must provide seamless, hyperpersonalized experiences across all those channels, said Kevin Basden, Contact Center vice president for NWN Carousel, a cloud communications service provider that also provides security, contact center, managed devices and advanced technology solutions.

Basden said consumers today want in-person, online, chat, text and even video. At the same time, they expect a personalized experience on each of those platforms, so retailers need "a depth of information to make that customer experience flawless."

On a similar note, Basden also said he's seeing consumers expect the same personalized services in the messages they receive from retailers, such as notices that let them know when their packages have been delivered.

April likewise said MSPs have an opportunity to help retailers up their game with customer experience, noting "customer experience is a niche area that will grow and grow."

5. Improved employee experience

Retailers have lost hundreds of thousands of workers during the Great Resignation, with U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that 683,000 quit in October, 685,000 in September and 721,000 in August 2021.

As such, Basden said MSPs have an opportunity to help retailers develop and deliver better employee experiences. "They have to start taking care of this workforce," he added.

The same intelligence that's used to fuel better customer experiences can be used to help customer service agents do their jobs more effectively and efficiently, whether they're working in on-premises operations or in a remote role, Basden said.

6. Strategic and transformative advice

The biggest opportunity for MSPs is to help retailers understand how each of these technologies can be used tactically to improve operations and combined to drive strategic objectives and true digital transformation, industry insiders said.

It's a complex world that's becoming more complex, and the MSPs that can help navigate that with them are super valuable.
Shawn MillsPresident, Lunavi

That means helping retail clients harness everything from natural language processing to more automation, Basden said.

Mills agreed, noting that his company's customers "want to sell their products in multiple ways," including from delivery services, such as DoorDash and Uber Eats, and traditional channels. As an MSP, he said the goal is to enable the speed, uptime and UX required to enable all that, while also serving the growing IT environment that supports that vision.

"It's a complex world that's becoming more complex, and the MSPs that can help navigate that with them are super valuable," he added.

What do MSPs need to know to develop IT services for the retail market?

To deliver for retailers moving forward, Sanchez said MSPs need to help them envision what the future will look like, roadmap, and think about digital disruption and transformation, in addition to deliver the technology and services that support that.

This, he and other industry experts said, is about engaging retailers on the art of the possible.

April concurred: "We always encourage companies to go out and teach clients what they don't know. There are a lot of customers out there that don't know what they need, and there are some who do know what they need, but they're overwhelmed with choice."

She said the opportunity for MSPs comes from getting past infrastructure-only services, but MSPs must build or advance their consulting capabilities, their software development skills and their expertise in the six key areas noted above.

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