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Black Friday in the tech world

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/MIKHAIL GRACHIKOV)

Every year, retailers prepare for one of the biggest events in their calendar – Black Friday.  Here, a handful of IT experts share their tips and tricks on how teams can be best prepared for the big day on 23rd November.

Transforming the networks

With a massive £1.4bn spent in online sales in the UK last Black Friday, the stage is definitely set for the biggest shopping date of the year. Jon Lucas, Director at Hyve Managed Hosting, commented, “Floods of consumers wait in anticipation to get the best deals, and in turn bombard websites with traffic. The question is, is your hosting ready? All the discounted pricing, online advertising, and most importantly your merchandise, will be a waste if your website fails to cope with spikes and influxes. Make sure you have a scalable solution in place that can run tests on your website beforehand, adjust resources as and when needed and easily manage bursts of activity in order to provide a reliable, secure platform when you need it most.”

Jeff Keyes, Director of Marketing at Plutora remarked that, “It is imperative that businesses are able to keep up with the high volume of traffic that Black Friday entails. If they are unable to keep up, there’s a loss of brand credibility, productivity and revenue — revenue that is likely to be lost to the competition.

With this in mind, mean time to recovery (MTTR) should be at the forefront of companies’ minds as we approach this holiday season. If these companies only experience downtime once every year, but it takes an entire day to recover, consumers won't care that the issue has not happened at any other time all year.

“Organisations should incorporate failure planning into every level of service delivery – creating redundancies in every layer of the application delivery stack. Plan for failures anywhere and everywhere. Reduce time of delivery for software updates utilising continuous deployment with significant automated tests so that patches are less likely to introduce further problems.”

Additionally, Todd Krautkremer, Chief Marketing Officer at Cradlepoint pointed out that, “Retailers need to transform their wide-area networks to provide always-on access from brick and mortar stores to remote pop-up stores and kiosks, and provide greater bandwidth to handle the increase in traffic.

“The good news is that today’s 4G LTE wireless networks are more pervasive, delivering faster speeds than ever before. Over 75 per cent of the world’s top retail brands are already using LTE to provide non-stop connectivity to mission-critical applications and the cloud, to isolate and securely connect ‘store-within-a-store’ deployments, and to provide anywhere, anytime connectivity for pop-ups and seasonal stores. The cost, availability, and speed of today’s 4G LTE services make it attainable for retailers of all sizes, allowing them to leverage cloud applications to reduce costs and improve customer experience. And because it helps keeps their critical systems online, they can avoid having Black Friday turn into a ‘black eye.’"

Security needs

Another area for retailers to consider is the possibility of a malicious intrusion on the company’s network. Stephen Moore, Chief Security Strategist at Exabeam, warned that, “This day, combined with Cyber Monday, are critical events for the retail sector, and the ramifications of a malicious intrusion on the company’s network could be devastating.

“Adversaries could be after the massive influx of credit card data – or even just looking to disrupt the business, and negatively impact its profits. No matter the motivation, the cost of an outage will only be amplified by the increasing traffic of these massive sales. The transactional volume at the end of Q4 often makes or breaks most retailers – and adversaries know this. Some retailers, unofficially, have standing orders to keep systems operational and available even if it means allowing the attack to persist, as such the defender must have the tools to continually track the adversary. With this in mind, we must arm the defender, who is already exhausted, with an edge to gain visibility and “buy” back time. Behavioural modelling, advanced analytics and machine learning, when aligned to the goals of the defender and consumer can play an important role in protecting retailers’ businesses and profits year-round.

“Detecting adversaries by establishing a baseline of normal behaviour for all accounts and assets in the organisation — including communication patterns, ports and protocols used, and operating activity — automatically identifies risky device activity that may be indicative of a security incident or compromise. This helps to protect retailers and consumers from criminal activity, breaches and insider threats, even during the busiest times of year.”

Another area for retailers to consider is their point-of-sale (POS) systems during this busy shopping weekend as they’ll no doubt be a target for hackers. Jan van Vliet, VP EMEA at Digital Guardian remarked, “Compromised POS systems have been the gateway to some of the largest and most damaging data breaches of recent years. These attacks are particularly hard-hitting because they usually involve the theft of sensitive financial details including customer names, credit card account numbers, expiration dates and CVV security codes.

“There are multiple measures retailers can – and should – deploy to defend against these attacks including encrypting all POS data upon entry and decrypting it only when it reaches the payment processor; implementing application whitelisting; regularly updating POS software and performing regular vulnerability testing; segmenting networks used by POS systems; and using complex, secure passwords and 2FA.”

Garry McCracken, VP Technology at WinMagic agreed that the challenge for retailers is that with all the good that comes from an abundance of shoppers, also comes the bad. “Holiday shopping events like Black Friday present a great opportunity for criminals to gain information on shoppers’ personal data,” he continued. “Remember the Target data breach when the credit/debit cards of 110 million customers were compromised. Retailers can protect themselves and their customers from data loss or theft by following a few simple tips including knowing where their data and customers reside, completing a vulnerability assessment, encrypting all data and assuming responsibility for data especially in the cloud.”

Customer data

Customer data is a strategic asset for retailers, so that data must be readily accessible. Jon Toor, CMO at Cloudian, continued, “At this time of year, when events like Black Friday and Christmas are driving big spikes in consumer spending, it’s important to consider the direct link between data availability and bottom-line performance. If retailers are to provide customers with the real-time offers and dynamic shopping experience they need to remain competitive, data storage and management must be a year-round priority.”

Neil Barton, CTO at WhereScape agreed, "As Black Friday approaches, retailers are making critical decisions given the data they have at hand to understand the likely purchasing habits of buyers during this often high-intensity spending season. By analysing the data patterns from previous years, retailers are able to both optimise their supply chain to meet demand without over-ordering, as well as be ready to offer significant personalised sales incentives and discounts for both Black Friday and Cyber Monday shoppers. Additionally, real-time data collection and analysis during these mission-critical events will enable online retailers to respond quickly if any unexpected deviations should occur to limit risk or better capitalise on opportunity.

“All this is enabled through data warehousing and a savvy big data strategy, powered by automation. With these, IT teams can commit to quickly delivering the data-driven insights that retail leaders will need to ensure they maximise the revenue gains available this holiday season.”

Emphasis on the workforce

Black Friday makes for one of the busiest shopping weekends of the year, and shop floor retail staff really have their work cut out for them. Steve Wainwright, Managing Director EMEA at Skillsoft explained, “Footfall is set to increase dramatically, as shoppers race through the doors to bag a bargain. But as retailers put the finishing touches to their in-store merchandise displays and hang banners announcing the bargains on offer, they shouldn’t forget that their teams need preparation too. For an industry that relies so heavily on its staff, ongoing training and development is crucial. It helps put staff at ease, and ensures they can deliver that all-important customer experience.

“We’re reminded of this during busy shopping periods, but it’s important to remember that training should be a year-round priority. It takes time to develop the skills needed for the retail environment – skills such as customer service, managing relationships, developing people and brand evangelism. A comprehensive training programme that’s structured around the retail calendar will be far more effective than a last minute rush. This can prioritise longer, more in-depth training for quieter shopping periods, while also providing ‘just in time’ learning during peak periods for members of staff who need a timely re-visit ahead of the rush!”

Preparing financial institutions

Rupert Spiegelberg CEO at IDNow concluded, “The seductive offers of Black Friday present an unrivalled opportunity for financial institutions to respond to customer demand for credit across the globe. Many, however, will lose out on this opportunity due to inconvenient, outdated identification processes which cause new customers to look elsewhere.

“Online identity verification and e-signature is one of FinTech's fastest growing areas as financial services seek to shift the customer experience to a convenient, online-only experience. This technology enables financial institutions to verify their customers’ identities without the need for paper documentation while remaining in compliance with European Anti-Money Laundering and electronic signature regulations. Offering solutions that solve real customer problems is the reason that online, so-called challenger banks have become such a threat to traditional banking organisations.”

As the craziness of Black Friday ensues, businesses should be as prepared as possible. Measures put in place now will only serve to improve the retail experience for shoppers and retailers alike during the festive season, and throughout the rest of the year.

Image source: Shutterstock/MIKHAIL GRACHIKOV