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Microsoft Azure Adoption Among Retailers Spotlighted at NRF

At this week's National Retail Federation (NRF) show in New York, Microsoft talked up the ways that major retailers are using its Azure cloud platform to improve in-store experiences.

Use of Azure among retailers has grown exponentially in the past year, said Tracy Issel, general manager of Microsoft's retail sector, in an interview.

"It used to be [that] we talked with people about going to the cloud and the perceived risk and their concern about scalability," Issel said. "I haven't had one of those conversations in a long time. Now it's, 'What do I move first and when do I do it?' Many are moving to Office 365 and Azure simultaneously."

The types of apps that retailers are rolling out this year make use of Azure in a big way. For instance, GameStop and McDonald's use applications that leverage Azure Machine Learning (Azure ML), the predictive analytics tool that Microsoft unveiled last year.

In a roundtable discussion, Issel discussed four customers that are in the midst of major new efforts using Azure and/or Windows 8.1-based tablets and kiosks. Here's a brief synopsis of their efforts:

GameStop
Jeff Donaldson, senior vice president of GameStop Technology Institute, outlined a number of initiatives aimed at driving customer usage of GameStop's mobile app in ways that let store employees engage with customers during visits. The app uses a variety of analytics tools -- including Azure ML, Hewlett-Packard's Vertica and SAS for statistical analysis -- to inform sales reps of a customer's previous interactions with the store.

"When they come into the store, we want to make sure the employees know about the messages we sent to customers so they better understand the intent of the visit," Donaldson said.

Another major effort calls for delivering Ultra HD content into each of GameStop's 6,400 stores using Azure Media Services.

CKE Restaurants Holdings (Carl's Jr. and Hardees)
The popular fast-food chain has concluded that millennials would much rather interact with kiosks than other people to order their food, said Thomas Lindblom, senior vice president and chief technology officer of CKE. As such, Hardees is rolling out kiosks that allow customers to choose and customize their burgers, and that are designed to upsell. CKE is using Dell's 24-inch, off-the-shelf, touch-based PCs to deliver the highly visual application.

Lindblom said CKE is "a significant user of Azure" for a number of functions, including storage and disaster recovery. CKE has also rolled out Office 365.

TGI Fridays
Looking to modernize the dining experience, waiters and waitresses will carry 8-inch, off-the shelf Windows tablets with apps developed by Micros (which is now a part of Oracle). The point-of-sale solution is designed to track customer preferences through loyalty cards.

"We are cutting training times [and] we are able to deliver this digital touchpoint in the hands of our servers as they serve their guests," said TGI Fridays CIO Tripp Sessions.

McDonald's
Microsoft partner VMob has rolled out an Azure-based application at McDonald's locations in Europe that lets the company track customers' preferences using information gathered from their purchasing patterns. VMob has also started rolling out the application  at locations in Japan.

VMob Founder and CEO Scott Bradley, who demonstrated the solution in Microsoft's booth at NRF, indicated that the company is still working on getting the app into U.S. McDonald's locations, but implied that it may take some time and said it's not a done deal. Nevertheless, he said he believes McDonald'seventually will roll it out in the United States.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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