Tips for improving digital retail experiences

June 03, 2021 09:22
Photo: Bloomberg

Two years ago, the digitalization of retail experiences were largely nice-to-have investments. Fast-forward a year, it became a necessity, though even today, many retailers still struggle to adapt to the new technologies. According to a survey by Hong Kong-based virtual bank Livi, half of the respondents said they shopped more online during the pandemic, with the majority (85%) saying they were likely to continue the habit post-COVID-19. The unprecedented trend has forced retailers to digitize at warp speed or risk going under.

Like other industries, retail had to shift gears within a matter of weeks, and the eye-watering speed introduced a host of new challenges. So how can IT professionals help retailers transform quickly with limited resources, while sustaining digitalization and upholding a positive customer experience?

Orchestrate Budgets, Not Just Infrastructure

To be clear, many retailers made remarkable strides toward digital as a response to the challenges of the pandemic. It was an eventuality since legacy IT infrastructure increasingly struggled to meet the rapidly evolving technological demands of the smartphone era. With this came a cohort of new demands: increased cloud-based applications, digital tools, and platform-specific workflows, and of course, a new orchestration—both systems and mindsets-wise—to manage it all.

Even decades-old CapEx (capital expenditure) practices for allocating IT budgets (like optimising spend for redundant capacity and storage over compute resources) had to find their place alongside variable OpEx (operating expenditure) subscription spending. This transformation alone can be significant for IT teams to wrap their minds around, let alone the organizations that have to (sometimes dramatically) shift the way they account for technology. Gone are the short-lived acute pains of wrangling one-time sunk costs for IT, finance and IT teams now need to regularly review to make sure system benefits offset the financial costs.

With cloud-based services, data center subscription provisioning and “as a service” software, underutilisation can be a bigger problem than over-utilisation. Extra headroom is no longer a pragmatic investment. With cloud, capacity is billed by the hour—used or not—and overprovisioning means lost opportunity, consuming budget that would otherwise be better invested elsewhere. This is especially the case for organisations facing budget cuts, where IT cost optimization and expenditure scrutiny are heightened.

Retail IT teams behind the transformation curve may be forced to simultaneously trim operations while learning how to increasingly deliver seamless digital retail experiences. Automation and orchestration can go a long way when it comes to reducing the distraction of routine manual administration tasks, but to be effective, they require comprehensive monitoring and performance overview. IT teams are adopting new tools and techniques to monitor the network and application infrastructure, cloud utilization and performance, and end-user experiences. They’re realising monitoring that extends from the back end to front-facing systems and through to the actual digital experiences of customers is critical. Without this real-time visibility over their digital domain, IT professionals will struggle to govern and address emerging issues before the retail experience is impacted.

Not Just About Visibility, but Agility

In the highly competitive retail landscape, brands need to constantly offer faster, more seamless experiences to stay on top of the competition. This means any retail application, system, or storefront needs frequent optimisation and reiteration, which requires a nimble foundation.

Deploying solutions at intense speed will always come with technical vulnerabilities, but what IT professionals can do is pre-emptively identify and mitigate risk wherever possible. As retailers rapidly shift more business online, adding even more complexity and the risk that comes with it, monitoring once again provides a robust and proven solution. Monitoring provides visibility to evaluate proposed changes against available resources, identify bottlenecks, and anticipate the impact of future transformational imperatives.

Fortunately, retailers are seeing success, with new monitoring and orchestrating tools and with IT organisations paving the way to more interesting possibilities. Many are implementing the best aspects of DevOps and the agile methodology, continuously collecting and distributing performance metrics from all aspects of the business. When IT professionals are assured they can identify and assess issues before a new feature rolls out, retailers can deploy features like NLP chatbots or e-commerce mobile applications with greater confidence.

Stepping Into the Customer’s Shoes

Technical hiccups like outages or errors, not to mention the cascading technical problems that can result from a single line of code, can discourage potential shoppers, especially when there are so many online shops to choose from.

The silver lining for retailers is the shift to monitoring digital customer user experiences has given them the ability to better gauge the performance of non-linear customer experiences, including steps that have traditionally occurred in-store. Integrated monitoring combining established on-prem metrics with cloud analytics and “software as a service” (SaaS) utilisation data replaces assumptions, habits, and confirmation bias with facts. It allows both the business and application teams to identify dips in customer interaction and begin the process of troubleshooting the root cause of limitations or issues.

Monitoring can act as a lighthouse, illuminating the path for retailers to understand their customers. It helps identify how to improve the shopping experience, and ultimately, delight customers and increase sales.

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Head Geek™, SolarWinds