Are you a retailer trying to get ready for the 2018 holiday season? Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you.
Just kidding. Sort of.
I could just sit here and share yet another checklist to remind you of all the standard ecommerce table stakes you need to master. Things like load testing, inventory monitoring and management, mobile site optimization, security compliance, paid ads, email drip campaigns, social media campaigns and customer support. But what I really want to do is help you get ready for Cyber Monday 2019. And 2020. And 2025. And all the shopping days in between.
Where to begin? Let’s take a long, hard look at your commerce infrastructure.
Big doorbuster sales may be the bread-and-butter strategy for your standard Black Friday weekend, but if you’re looking for long-term success, you’ll need to think beyond new features and promotions. You’ll need to make sure your commerce platform is capable of carrying your storefront into the future, where the world of ecommerce (and commerce in general) moves at a rapid, and accelerating, pace.
Can your commerce platform get you where you need to go? If you suspect the answer is no—don’t panic! Here are four major insights on development, internationalization, channels and data that will help you get ready for the future.
Continuous improvement allows for flexibility
At a 2011 talk at Velocity Conference, Director of Platform Analysis Jon Jenkins revealed that Amazon’s dev team deploys new code to production at an average rate of once every 11.6 seconds. What does this mean in layman’s terms? It means that the folks at Amazon are continually building new functionality, updating existing features, A/B testing, and fixing bugs to gradually improve their product and overall customer experience. And that’s why they have such phenomenal business results.
If you’re looking to get ready for the future, you’ll want to make sure your org supports this technology-first approach to development. By merging small amounts of code frequently, continuous integration allows dev teams to write better code, be more productive, ship faster, and respond to customer experience requests quickly. And through continuous deployment (or to a slightly lesser extent, continuous delivery), teams can then automate building, testing and deploying so that software continues to be released in short cycles, allowing for incremental updates.
Smaller, frequent updates offer flexibility, but they also offer the opportunity to build toward a big update without having to shut your entire site down. Just this week, I got an email from a major retailer saying, “...we are about to code freeze for November.” If your site is on code lockdown for two months before the holidays (that’s 16% of the entire year, by the way) because you don’t feel confident that your infrastructure and software can handle changes without crashing, you are falling farther behind every day. The Amazon Effect is real.
Tap into new markets by going international
Optimizing your site for international markets means more than simply using a currency converter, or setting up international shipping options. It means personalizing your ecommerce content, defining your targeted products, and tailoring your sales strategy to specific regional markets.
If you’re a clothing retailer looking to tap into new markets, you’ll want to be strategic about the types of merchandise you market to consumers. Different types of messaging resonate with different kinds of people living in different places—is a casual register more appropriate, or should the voice stick to being formal? Likewise, a shopper in a sunny suburb in the US has entirely different needs from a shopper living in a rainy city in the UK. And it’s not just about localization—internationalization means considering new promotions that resonate with new markets, like Singles Day in China. It also means accommodating shoppers in countries who primarily browse on their mobile devices, or in offline mode.
With new markets come new sales strategies. You’ll want to make sure your commerce platform can accommodate different exchange rates and taxes (e.g. value added tax), and you’ll also want to be flexible with how your reporting interprets conversion. As for shipping, you’ll want to set up the proper rules for international shipping so that shoppers don’t get blindsided by high shipping costs.
Ecommerce is commerce, and commerce is global. If you can’t accommodate, respect and support the needs of your international neighbors, your conversion rates will suffer. Amazon gets this. Fortunately, there are commerce platforms out there with the technology to support internationalization. For retailers looking past the next big hit or sale, it’s worth checking out.
Omnichannel reflects how shoppers actually buy
It’s a bit of a buzzword now, but there’s a reason why omnichannel is so widely discussed in commerce. Savvy shoppers no longer make their purchases through one point of sale alone. Now, the customer journey may consist of several touchpoints, which may begin in-store, continue to a marketplace site accessed on a mobile app, and finally end on a desktop computer. That’s why it’s essential for retailers to offer as seamless an experience as possible for shoppers, so that they can consistently experience the best of the brand as they continue down the channel stream.
Unfortunately, the troubling reality is that many retailers struggle with offering this seamless experience. That’s often because there’s no single source of truth for their data. Not for inventory, not for customer data, not for traffic, user experience or marketing metrics. Imagine running an online storefront that doesn’t share data with its Amazon marketplace storefront, its brick-and-mortar locations or anything else. If the online storefront inventory runs out of shirts on Cyber Monday, that site isn’t selling more shirts. Meanwhile, in the backroom of a physical store 5 miles away, hundreds of shirts sit there, in stock, ready to be shipped.
Omnichannel requires customization. It requires a flexible infrastructure that won’t break when you try to launch a new loyalty program, a mobile POS or a new fulfillment option, like in-store pickup. In return, it provides retailers with a holistic view of data across channels. Imagine how nice it would be to have a centralized place to monitor and manage every order, shipment and conversion.
Real-time data is everything
I’m just going to put it bluntly: if your data isn’t connected in real time to what’s happening with your store, you’re flying blind.
When it comes to big shopping events like Cyber Monday, there’s no time to lose. With the major influx of traffic, sales, and support inquiries, you’ll need to be on top of things as they come, second-by-second. Even relatively straightforward functions like inventory management can be hopelessly bungled if you have to wait for your system to generate an overnight cron job just to know what’s in stock.
Through algorithmic real-time data, retailers can immediately spot trends as the promotion carries on. They can then use these trends to predict behavior and make timely decisions to provide a greater shopper experience, resulting in greater conversion. Is one product type converting poorly compared to other products? Play with pricing. Is it receiving zero conversions? There may be a problem with its checkout CTA. This type of instantaneous dialogue would simply not be possible in a static model.
So how can retailers employ real-time data? Again, it all goes back to infrastructure. You’ll want to make sure your infrastructure is event-driven and has the ability to retain and analyze data. Consider looking into NoSQL databases like MongoDB, which account for many types of data schemas in real time.
In conclusion, of course, do what you need to do to get through this holiday season. Check off all those essential table-stakes items. Batten down the hatches! But once you’ve recovered from the frenzy of this year’s short-term promotions, it’s time to think about your long-term goals. Rethink your development process—make sure it’s flexible, and allows for continuous improvement. Tap into new international markets. Reflect how shoppers actually buy, then establish a single source of truth for data. And last but not least, always maintain a real-time dialogue with your customers.
I hope this holiday season is successful beyond your wildest dreams. And I also hope that when the rush is over, you’ll take a deep breath, reflect on how it all went and ask yourself: Can this commerce infrastructure get us to where the market will be next year? Five years from now? Ten? If you don’t like the direction you’re headed, the best time to begin the process of making a course correction is now.
Editor's note: This story was first published on E-Commerce Times.