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Where to start when it comes to modernising your ecommerce offering?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Snowing / Freepik)

Agility is vital in today’s ecommerce environment. Companies want to develop and deliver new capabilities as quickly as possible, focusing their time and money on the problem at hand. This requires a responsive and flexible approach to technology that allows for targeted development.

To meet market demand and stay ahead of the competition, you want to avoid the added complexity, cost, and time required to apply changes to a monolithic application. Not to mention the lost sales from system downtime.

Yet, many large retailers find they have no choice. Traditional, enterprise-grade ecommerce platforms often rely on a code-base written, in the pre-cloud era, for a single, monolithic installation. Such designs often prevent any meaningful flexibility or customisation and customers find themselves locked into the vendor’s platform.

1.            Cloud-powered agility

Retailers locked into a monolithic software package often find it difficult to adapt to changing demands or new digital channels, or maintain a high quality of service internationally.

The solution for many retailers like ASOS has been to move to a cloud-first, microservices approach, allowing them to take incremental, low-risk steps to transforming their customer experience. Successful retailers prioritise the services that give them greatest concern and build additional, replacement services around the monolithic core of their existing platform. In this way, they can replace inflexible services one by one. They can reduce the risk of a wholesale replacement and design their own ecommerce solution, in the cloud, on their terms.

Cloud-first thinking gives ecommerce firms the flexibility to delight customers with great services and consistent performance, wherever they are. It delivers agility beyond the capabilities of traditional, monolithic, server-first architecture while also reducing the risks of change.

"The technical constraints that traditional ecommerce vendors place on retailers ultimately impacts their ability to provide an engaging and competitive customer experience at global scale. Retailers need more control of their digital channels than a finished product can possibly give them, no matter how deep its customisation capabilities are. Services hosted in the cloud remove these constraints at a cost comparable to implementing boxed products. Furthermore, the use of platform as a service clouds keeps the complexity of support down to a minimum." Simon Evans CTO Amido

2. Flexibility that delights your customers

Mobile commerce is huge. Nearly half of the UK’s online retail sales come via a mobile device and top retailers like Argos and Tesco now get more traffic from mobiles than from desktops or laptops.

Today, mobile-first is the watchword for ecommerce design, yet retailers initially struggled to deliver mobile-ready websites. Even now, many sites would be better described as “mobile compatible” than mobile-first. How will they cope with whatever innovation next captures consumers’ attention? Among the emerging candidates are the following:

a) Real-time customisation

Real-time customisation is a growing trend, which builds on the personalisation already seen on some sites to deliver insightful, intuitive, real-time recommendations.

In real-time customisation, every visit to your retail site will be different, each deeply personalised and informed by previous visits and other, contextual personal data.

Achieving this in a way that is neither intrusive nor irrelevant will require the ability to connect disparate data sources from both sides of the corporate firewall.

How easily can your ecommerce platform integrate customer insight from other departmental silos or from external sources like social media?

b) Conversational commerce

A phrase coined by Uber’s Chris Messina, conversational commerce uses chat, messaging and other natural language technologies to enable interaction between consumers and brands. The brand-side interaction can be driven either by human users or bots.

As Messina foresees: “The net result is that you and I will [soon] be talking to brands and companies over Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack… and will find it normal.”

Intelligent home devices like Amazon Echo are taking the concept further still. Amazon partnered with Capital One to enable customers to check their bank balances and make payments using their voice.

According to Absolunet, users of live chat spend an average of 5 – 30 per cent more and the buyer conversion rate is five to ten times higher following a chat session.

How easy would it be to integrate either human-to-human messaging or intelligent chat-bots into your existing ecommerce infrastructure?

c) Programmatic commerce

Here, regular, everyday products are ordered either automatically, or by a simple, low involvement technology. To be effective, the technology has to be simpler (or more appealing) than writing the item onto the bottom of your shopping list. With Amazon Echo, you can ask the device to add toothpaste to your shopping list.

The Amazon Dash button is a low-cost, product-branded device that you stick around the home. For example, stick an Aerial washing powder button on your washing machine. When you find you’re running low on detergent, simply press the button and it’s added to your shopping list.

Waitrose’s pilot of the HiKu device combines the options of voice-ordering or bar-code scanning. Such devices bring us a step closer to the mythical, milk-ordering fridge, but again, how will your current platform interoperate with these services?

d) AR and VR

A number of retailers are experimenting with augmented and virtual reality technologies such as the Microsoft HoloLens to demonstrate their products in context.

e) Touch

Fashion retailer Farfetch launched a touchable video ad – touch any products you like in the video and they are waiting in a basket for you at the end.

f) Geolocation

Many retailers are exploring the possibilities that come with knowing a customer is near, or in, your store.

3. Customer Experience

The last differentiation

Online stores have many advantages over traditional retailers. Limitless product ranges, 24/7 opening hours, competitive and flexible pricing to name a few. The customer experience is often the factor that brings online customers back.

One of the biggest challenges facing High Street leaders is replicating that experience – their “brand promise” – in an online environment. The fact is that, beneath a thin skin of brand image, many ecommerce offerings are indistinguishable.

For many large retailers, this is at least partly due to the restrictions created by their choice of ecommerce platform. There is a relatively small pool of enterprise-class ecommerce vendors each offering a very similar set of constrained functionality, with a similar store look and feel.

Worse still, retailers are often forced to stick with one software platform. As one retailer stated, "It's complete vendor lock in. Once you've spent GBP 10 million, you're not going to write it off. You just keep spending because you have to make it work."

Even as they promote their move to the cloud, often these packages still operate on a monolithic, pre-cloud architecture that makes any degree of customisation difficult, expensive and time consuming to achieve. Any sort of differentiation can be impossible to achieve without re-writing, and then redeploying, the entire code-base.

Effectively, many ecommerce businesses find themselves locked into a platform that prevents them from offering the customer experience differentiation that is vital for success.

This is where a micro-services approach can provide a refreshing alternative to vendor lock-in. It also enables you to avoid monolithic upgrades, and “Big Bang” re-platform events, that demand time and money.

And unlike with traditional ecommerce platforms, the incremental approach that cloud-based micro-services technology offers means you can enhance the customer experience and gain returns rapidly, with smaller capital investments.

4. Performing at scale

Now everyone’s a global player

Another problem that an agile approach to ecommerce technology helps to solve is that of scaling up your operations.

The retail calendar is full of spikes, which can make or break the business depending on your level of readiness. A crash could mean lost sales in the busiest hours of the year (online firms can take 10 per cent of their annual sales on Black Friday alone). It can also mean angry and frustrated customers, lost loyalty and a bonus for competitors.

As CTOs continue to scale up to meet anticipated demand, it can be difficult to step back, take a breath and realise that focusing solely on scale is a limiting strategy. Scale is simply the entry price in today’s ecommerce world.

The problem of scale is often one of design. A monolithic application puts all its functionality in a single process. Today, such an approach is widely considered the antithesis of good software design.

The monolithic approach was never intended to scale up to today’s levels of. It lacks the flexibility to meet varying demand by scaling up and down quickly and easily. Components cannot be scaled independently of each other and the only answer is to deploy ever larger servers, increasing CPU, memory and storage.

Monolithic architecture is, simply, not the best fit for today’s high volume, high demand ecommerce environment. A different approach is needed.

Chris Priest, technical lead/Architect, Amido