There’s a tendency in the retail industry to focus on the biggest stores with the highest volume of footfall when it comes to IT systems support strategy. This seems to make sense on the surface; these stores generate the biggest profits and are often the most intense environments. A higher volume of customers, in theory, means that a higher level of disruption can be expected when IT systems fail. In practice, this typically turns out not to be the case.
The three main consequences of IT downtime are loss of money, custom and reputation. Customers are increasingly impatient, with fast, simple and streamlined shopping experiences becoming the standard; rising expectations mean that downtime can be increasingly destructive. If a customer can’t make a purchase quickly and easily, they’re often more likely to abandon the attempt than to stand idly by while the store staff struggle with an IT systems failure, shuffling customers around to make use of the available systems.
Customers have more options than ever, and winning custom can be hard enough at the best of times. In smaller stores, experiencing less footfall, each customer is proportionally more valuable in terms of the bottom line. People will often visit a store out of habit, with little to inspire their loyalty but nothing to dissuade them from shopping there, a small inconvenience can be all it takes to cause them to walk straight past the next time they go shopping.
Throwing money at protecting IT systems in larger stores partly results from these stores being perceived as more important than smaller stores. The truth is that all stores are important to the brand, and maintaining a consistently smooth and easy shopping experience is critical for that brand to be well-regarded by customers. A small store can easily develop a local reputation for being a hassle to shop in if it suffers from regular IT downtime, and this can ultimately harm the reputation not only of that store but also of the chain.
Don’t underestimate your capabilities
There’s perhaps a feeling that with more devices present in a store, more protection is required in terms of IT support. The truth is that a larger store with more devices is often better equipped to deal with IT downtime. Having a greater overall capacity reduces strain on the system in the event that one device does fail. In a store with more than 30 lanes, two or even three EPOS might go down without hugely impacting the operations of the store; it’s rare for the capacity of these stores to be strained except at critical times like the run-up to Christmas. In a store with only three lanes, losing one EPOS device for an afternoon could have a substantial impact: strain on other systems is increased, further increasing the chance of failure. Staff are stretched and the quality of customer service often declines in these brief but intense periods where IT provisions are crippled by one failed device.
Larger stores differ from smaller ones in that each area within the store can be further subdivided, with their own individual requirements. The stores will generally use a combination of the main tills, the self-checkouts (which are serviced by the manufacturer), and the kiosk – one-basket tills which sell cigarettes and lottery tickets, and are often used by convenience style shoppers. The kiosks generally have between one and three tills, which means that, due to the high-traffic these tills receive, if one goes down a large amount of pressure is then placed upon the others. It is recommended that larger stores mix the service levels across their tills, to provide the necessary amount of care for each different department.
Overloading on IT systems is obviously poor practice; if a store is never likely to be running at close to capacity, a large chunk of spend on IT provisions has been wasted. There’s a need to strike a balance between equipping a store with a system which is capable of comfortably dealing with the influx of customers at peak times, and purchasing IT efficiently without creating an excess of redundant devices. This leads to a critical need for all systems to be reliable; if you can trust three tills to operate perfectly at all times, there’s no need for a fourth.
Always be prepared
Pro-active maintenance services can protect IT systems against failure before they happen. Regular assessment and servicing where required is a must for all locations, especially those which rely on older and potentially more temperamental devices. One of the best ways of protecting an efficient IT system is to have a service provider identify failure trends for all devices, exposing potential problems before they arise and ensuring that devices remain properly operational at all times.
Operational monitoring is an even more effective way of ensuring that systems run smoothly; each device can be constantly analysed to help ensure that downtime doesn’t occur in the first place. Having expert second line support available protects stores from the consequences of IT downtime. Having an experienced service desk available and a team of mobile engineers can result in huge savings when something does go wrong. When it comes to smaller stores, re-evaluating service level agreements can be a great move for a retailer. A ‘next business day’ agreement can work well for stores which can afford to lose one or two devices for an afternoon, but negotiating a 6 or 4-hour fix SLA can be a fantastic move for a smaller store.
Being able to get systems up and running within an afternoon not only brings the store back to full capacity and reduces strain on other IT provisions, it also helps to protect against any damage to a store’s reputation. If e.g. an EPOS is dearly missed within a store then a break in service of more than one afternoon can seem negligent on the part of the retail from the point of view of the consumer. People tend not to notice that a store is running smoothly, but are usually acutely aware of problems.
Getting those problems fixed protects the brand by making the retailer appear proactive rather than disinterested; it conveys the impression that you care about your customers and want to ensure that their experience is smooth and enjoyable.
Every store and every customer is important, and in a deeply interconnected world, it’s increasingly difficult to predict the impact that a little bit of downtime might cause; the opinions of a few disgruntled customers can have a far-reaching impact. Having comprehensive protection for IT systems in smaller stores is not only critical for preventing unnecessary difficulties for customers and potential lost business, it’s a fundamental part of a solid retail strategy: equip a store efficiently, and make sure you have the peace of mind of knowing that all of your systems can be truly relied on and anything this does go wrong can be resolved with the minimum of disruption, keeping profits healthy and customers happy.
Simon Phillips, Head of Business Development, Barron McCann