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Turn browsers into buyers: Laying the IT foundations to drive Black Friday sales

(Image credit: Image Credit: Flex)

Experience is everything in retail. A positive customer journey can be the difference between retaining a loyal customer base and losing out to competitors. Indeed, Riverbed’s 2019 Retail Digital Trends Survey found that 89 per cent of global consumers believe having a positive digital shopping experience is just as important to their loyalty to a retailer/store as their prices. As Black Friday and Cyber Monday approaches, this means there is a huge opportunity for retailers to build a positive reputation with the influx of shoppers heading their way.

Breakthrough technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and Cloud computing are redefining the retail experience. Both online and in-store, retailers are adopting this technology to bring them one step ahead of the competition. This technology land-grab has the potential to be of huge benefit to customers, but only if businesses have a strong supporting infrastructure to unlock these benefits.

As customers rush to the stores, and every retailer competes to grab their attention, it will be those with the complete digital offering that succeed. Not just those with the most flashy front end.

A new retail experience

The retail experience today is almost unrecognisable from the stores of 20 to 30 years ago. The closest thing to state-of-the-art-technology would have been the analogue Point-of-Sale device with the old, familiar “kerching!” Nowadays, it is commonplace for staff to be roaming across the store with digital touchpoints in hand, supporting customers on the fly. Or consider Amazon’s attempt to change the PoS completely, with the introduction of Amazon Go. The in-store experience has to continually develop in order to differentiate its value offering from the seamless online experience offered by digital-first retailers.

These technologies are also being supported by the growth of the personalisation trend. Both online and in-store, retailers are collecting data on individual previous experiences and preferences. This enables the technology to address each person with products most relevant to them.

But, with this comes a problem for the IT teams tasked with supporting data-hungry applications and digital touchpoints. The IT infrastructure supporting retailers has had to change dramatically in a short period of time, as consumer expectations have accelerated at unprecedented speeds. If businesses fail to adapt, their competitors will. And ultimately, customers will follow the leader.

A combined approach

Case and point for this is in the collapse of Toys ‘R’ Us last year. The retailer had a reputation for being fairly slow to adopt technology, with images of seemingly decades-old tills and point-of-sale equipment in UK Toys R Us stores regularly doing the rounds on social media. However, in the latter stages of the retailer’s life, it took a ‘last throw of the dice’ by investing in mobile digital touchpoints across their stores. This resulted in a disjointed approach and seen as too little too late by retail analysts.

Technology investments cannot be made in isolation. Underpinning every new layer of flashy consumer-facing technology needs to be a base layer of infrastructure which allows these retailers to measure and manage digital experience in real-time.

This is where a scalable infrastructure offering like software-defined networking can shine. SD-WAN provides a single, unified orchestration and connectivity fabric across the entire distributed enterprise network with embedded security, optimisation and visibility. This boosts agility, security and operational efficiency across the network.

At the base level, SD-WAN enables these businesses to have a flexible network that allows them to implement new front-end solutions with ease. Above this, IT teams will be armed with dashboards that give them invaluable insight into the health of their network. This is especially important because it’s not unusual for Dev teams to prepare for the main event by building new applications and services in the cloud ahead of time. Testing can be performed away from the public eye to ensure that everything functions as designed before bringing it into production. But application stability and scalability are also key. Everything needs to work all the time and sustain bursts of increased activity during busy periods. While the cloud environment may be ideal for elastically hosting applications at this special time in the retail calendar, getting to and from the cloud when accessing them can be risky for at least two reasons. One, because connectivity to the cloud hosted applications will most likely be using the Internet for some or all of the path which could lead to a loss of control and visibility. Two, it’s quite probable that the network capacity has been provisioned solely for this time in the season and therefore unproven for production.

Equipping DevOps and IT teams with the appropriate visibility, management and acceleration tools de-risks the environment and enables them to collaborate effectively, ensuring that the customer experience does not suffer during times of high traffic. During these periods, such as Black Friday, this ability to continually access, develop and monitor the infrastructure in a proactive manner will be invaluable.

Turning browsers to buyers

A great experience is just as memorable as a bad one, and customer loyalty is earned and lost through these experiences. As retailers become increasingly “digital first” in their approach, a smart approach to network infrastructure is vital to support retailers’ continuous charge into flashy front-end technology.

Black Friday isn’t just a challenge that retailers need to survive. It is an opportunity to impress the swathe of new customers that could be heading their way. You don’t get a second chance at a first impression, so every effort should be made to ensure it is a positive one.

Paul Griffiths, Senior Director, Office of the CTO, Riverbed Technology