Authored by: Chrystal Taylor, Head Geek, SolarWinds
The tidal wave of COVID-19 crashed upon retailers as brick-and-mortar stores were forced to close or transform in unprecedented ways. At the same time, digital commerce ascended from beneficial to critical for supporting key sales avenues. Some retailers went even further, digitising and creating omnichannel strategies and innovating unique customer experiences.
According to a report, e-commerce retail sales are expected to exceed USD4 trillion and account for 6.59% of the global market by 2024. The breakneck speed of transformation, however, brings more choppy waters to wade through as customers increasingly demand new experiences, such as mobile-only purchases and touchless technology. With more than half of Southeast Asian retailers already looking to digitise, IT pros are beginning to find an entirely new host of obstacles to tackle.
So what can IT pros do to put out technical fires with limited resources, sustain digitisation, and preserve a positive customer experience to get from here to the promised land of Fantastic Digital Retail Experiences?
When Budgets Befriend Infrastructure
With the global increase in data centre and cloud demand, it’s clear most retailers got the memo about the urgent need to digitise. But as retailers strain to meet the rapidly evolving technological demands of modern digital retail, they can find themselves overwhelmed with options for virtualisation, new cloud-based applications and services software, new digital tools and platform-specific workflows, hybrid operations, and turbocharged orchestration and automation.
Another challenge is the rush toward OpEx billing. Subscription-based models can be one thing to integrate into a budget, but cloud can be quite different. Cloud resources can be billed by the hour, no matter how—or if—they’re used. That’s not to mention other complex and confusing methods of cloud resource billing, like data transfer costs, actual usage costs, data storage costs, etc. Extra resource headroom is no longer automatically a pragmatic investment when funds are already strained. Overprovisioning equates to lost opportunity you could’ve invested better somewhere else. For organisations facing budget cuts, IT cost optimisation and expenditures are placed under further scrutiny. As a result, retail IT teams behind the transformation curve may be forced to simultaneously trim operations while learning how to deliver seamless digital retail experiences.
Automation and orchestration can go a long way toward reducing the distraction of routine manual administration tasks, but to be effective, they require comprehensive monitoring and performance visualisation. Teams can’t orchestrate what they can’t see, and many of the new platforms and services retailers are adopting don’t come ready to observe out of the box. IT teams are adopting new tools and techniques for network and application infrastructure monitoring, cloud-native monitoring, and end-user monitoring to fill visibility gaps. They’re realising it’s critical to extend monitoring from the base of the infrastructure to the front end, the end user, and everything in between. Objectively measuring the real-world digital experiences of customers is critical. Without real-time visibility over their digital domains, IT pros will struggle to decisively address emerging issues before they impact shoppers’ experiences with brands.
Visibility Through the Storm
Much has been said about the value of orchestration. However, before we think about automating our operations, we first need to ensure teams can even see what they’re orchestrating. To be truly effective, we need to make sure monitoring and performance visualisation are comprehensive.
Monitoring provides visibility to evaluate proposed changes against available resources, identify bottlenecks, and anticipate the impact of future transformational imperatives. More importantly, the data it accumulates will guide more effective planning based on the unique resources, behaviours, and limitations of individual businesses. If they hadn’t already, IT pros are quickly beginning to realise the indispensability of end-to-end monitoring, and they’re starting to show business leaders how monitoring can save the business time and money.
The global network monitoring market is expected to swell over 10% CAGR in the next five years, and coupled with the boom of digital retail in Asia, more astute retailers will inevitably increase their investments in network and application infrastructure monitoring tools to fill visibility gaps.
New tools to monitor and orchestrate continue to surface, and retailers are seeing observability success. Many are also implementing the best aspects of agile methodologies, continuously collecting and distributing performance feedback metrics from all aspects of the business. These feedback loops are integral to continual improvement in monitoring and observability, which feeds back into improving the ability to quickly address emerging issues.
Nothing elevates digital experiences more than an agreed and shared “digital truth” about the thousands of details underpinning digital services. When IT pros are assured they can identify issues before users do, issues are less of a worry as they deploy new solutions like NLP chatbots or e-commerce mobile applications. Growing pains are expected and normal. Poor customer reception of new channels is not. Emerging technologies—like AIOps—may further automate and optimise digital storefronts and related services, assuming the quality of the underlying operational data is high.
Mapping Your Destination
Certainly, it’s possible—but not recommended unless you’re plagued with wanderlust—to begin a journey without a destination in mind. Customers are discovery- and transaction-focused, which means they don’t care HOW it works, simply that it works and works well. However, their destination—using your services or those of a competitor—will be determined most by your catalogue and their digital experience while exploring it. Therefore, it’s more important than ever for IT pros to have a quality destination in mind and develop the means to measure real-world activity.
Technical hiccups can veer prospects off course and can do more damage than simply driving customers away from your platform temporarily. According to Optimizely, a leading digital experience optimisation platform, one of the top reasons why shoppers abandon their online carts is due to technical issues and glitches. Frequent outages or errors and cascading technical problems will result in digital shopping experiences that come up short against competitors. Cart abandonment is a great digital experience performance metric and can proactively identify unseen service issues before they impact sales. It can be even more valuable as an early warning of real abandonment: customers taking their digital wallets elsewhere.
Retailers can certainly learn from the poor online and app shopping experience in recent months, with customers trying and consistently failing (myself included) to get a PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, or GeForce RTX 3080 Ti graphics card. With poor supply and the pandemic causing most purchases to be available online only, retail online experiences weren’t prepared for the onslaught of people trying to buy simultaneously. Most websites weren’t made to withstand the bots crafted by scalpers to buy all stock as soon as possible, either.
Monitoring digital customer user experiences can help map your digitisation journey goals by giving you a better gauge of customer experiences of all types, including traditional in-store operations. Retailers can certainly feed this data back into their development process and improve their application experiences. This scenario continues to play out and will no doubt happen again when supply shortages and demands are high. A working, improved experience will lead customers to come back time and again for other purchases—and to recommend your app to their friends and family as well.
Integrated monitoring combining established on-prem metrics with cloud analytics and software as a service (SaaS) utilisation data replaces assumptions, habits, and conclusion bias with facts, making it easy for the team to identify dips in application use and impact before beginning the troubleshooting process. Knowing where to start digging can significantly speed retailers towards optimising shopping experiences to drive increased sales.
A Great Crew Is Always Prepared
Today, nearly every business has become a digital business, even if it happened accidentally. Online shopping, supplier, and fulfilment experiences are becoming the key differentiators between retailers. This is natural given the state of technology. Where retail was once the last stronghold of bespoke applications and platforms, it now relies on the cost-friendly advantages of commodity tools and technologies. The downside is a more level playing field among competitors and upstarts.
Tiny brands with exquisite and pleasing digital customer experiences are increasingly able to displace incumbents. Monitoring strategy and user experience monitoring systems will help identify interaction obstacles and impediments. They’re more than just enablers for smooth and seamless customer journeys. They directly influence the most important retail metric of all: loyalty.