3 Steps to Seasonal Readiness
Retailers are always busy preparing for the next seasonal spike. Approximately 20 percent of annual retail sales in the United States occur during these short periods, often around national holidays; to manage the onslaught, retailers hire hundreds of thousands of seasonal employees.
by John Blackburn and Michael Deittrick
This jump in transaction traffic, logistics and supporting resources brings an increased risk for IT. Retail and security systems must support and protect brand, customer experience and critical transactional data while remaining competitive.
Throughout the year, retail customers — whether traditional or omnichannel shoppers — expect a consistent and seamless user experience in traditional stores, as well as through distribution centers, mobile apps, e-commerce, social media, call centers — even third-party partner networks. During peak shopping times and holidays, their demands only increase.
Notable cyber intrusions targeting major retailers such as, in the United States, Target, Neiman Marcus and others have shown that the dangers of a malicious attack are now all too real. Cyberattacks and breaches can disrupt retail operations, slow down and even prevent sales, and seriously damage a brand’s reputation.
Preparing for seasonal spikes is far from simple. However, retailers can benefit by proactively adopting the three following approaches:
- Be responsive
- Be elastic
- Be secure
These three approaches, described in this article, can help retailers gather the technology and business-focused capabilities that have become necessary for a successful season. They can also help increase customer satisfaction, protect the brand’s reputation, ensure that systems remain up during peak traffic periods, and maximize revenue and conversions.
While customers may always expect your e-commerce systems to be fast, smooth and easy to use, during seasonal spikes, customers demand it. Anything less, and they’re likely to defect. After all, competing retailers are only a few clicks away. To achieve greater responsiveness and retain valuable customers, consider taking these steps:
- Test, test and test again. While most retailers commonly test end-user touchpoints, they often overlook the testing of their supporting systems. So, be sure to examine your entire IT architecture from end to end, including your application, data, network and cloud platforms. But don’t stop there. You also need to test your competing workflows. For example, if your forecasting system wants to grab computing resources, what happens to online orders? Thankfully, your engineers can use automated tools to test and simulate real-world scenarios.
- Look deep for performance issues. Drags on performance can easily hide within interoperating systems. Don’t let them stay that way. Make sure your store systems can run offline — at least for a few hours — thereby allowing failover systems to take over, in the event of a failure. Ensure your databases are correctly tuned and your networks tested. Also consider if you have enough data storage.
- Remember your external services. External systems can form the weakest link in your chain because they’re not directly in your control. With the growth of Web services and the cloud, many retailers use more of these services than ever before. These services have become more important than ever, too. For example, a sluggish address-verification system can bring your checkout process to a crawl. Your goal? Make sure that it won’t happen.
How scalable do your systems need to be to cope with the holiday shopping rush? The right answer: very scalable. Peak shopping cycles create dramatically increased demands. To keep up, you need enough data storage, networking capacity and raw compute power — and the ability to quickly allocate more as needed. Sure, you will forecast your seasonal capacity needs. However, what if actual demand greatly exceeds your forecasts? Consider these tips for greater elasticity:
- Design software to scale. This is an architecting task. Place workloads on systems that can be scaled quickly, and ensure that network bandwidth can scale, too. This may require moving to a cloud model — private, public or hybrid — that best supports your particular workloads. As for large batch processes — the real enemies of scalability — also consider moving them to the cloud, which enables them to run in highly elastic virtual-server farms.
- Run your run-book. Here’s where your data center can optimize all batch-process schedules. Make sure your batch jobs run at times that do not interfere with your transactional systems. Consider rescheduling some jobs to run either before or after seasonal spikes, rather than during them.
- Refactor your workload. Many batch processes are essential. It’s not an option to skip this task. However, there’s still enough time to refactor your workloads and run them in the cloud. Rather than revamping your entire system, focus on the resource hogs and aim for a point solution.
One “seasonal event” that no one wants to experience is a data breach. The period during and right after a seasonal spike has become prime time for data thefts, system intrusions, malware incursions and other criminal activities. The following steps can help keep your systems and customers safe:
- Guard the last mile. Your endpoints are where an overwhelming majority of data breaches occur. To be sure, smart payment cards help. However, by themselves, they’re not the complete solution.
- Get holistic. Far too many retailers take a fragmented approach to security. Take an omnichannel approach and apply tokenization, which protects sensitive data with substitutes; also, consider fraud detection and other security best practices.
- Audit early and often. Conduct a full intrusion-detection audit to ensure that you are fully protecting your customers’ payment and personal information. Ensure that vital data is encrypted end to end. Leverage a vault system to tokenize credit cards; then isolate the system in a highly secure zone.
- Stay current. Ensure that all of your systems continue to have the latest security patches and fixes. With cybercriminals constantly launching new, sophisticated attacks, you simply cannot afford to fall behind. Also remember to conduct regular and timely maintenance on your entire IT environment, including Web and application servers, databases and firewalls.
Your systems’ seasonal readiness has become vital to your success, more than ever before. By ensuring they are responsive, elastic and secure, the next season will be, as the saying goes, in the bag.
JOHN BLACKBURN is CSC’s global industry general manager.
MICHAEL DEITTRICK is CTO for consumer, retail, travel and transportation industries at CSC.