Why an API ending is the answer

Amazon, Etsy and eBay: just a few of the well-known online brands that have long frustrated traditional bricks and mortar retailers. These companies have dominated the digital age for the past decade through their focus on online shopping, managing to avoid all of the costs involved in high street stores.

The continued and sustained growth of online retailers shows just how important it is for retailers to have a well-oiled multi-channel strategy. While many retailers will have set up an online presence long ago, it is imperative that they continue to review and analyse how well the e-commerce side of their business is working for them on a regular basis. Making use of the tools available to do this analysis properly – namely, the huge amount of data they already hold – is a no-brainer for anyone hoping to compete in today’s increasingly unpredictable retail market.

Many of the major traditional retailers run much of their core operations on large and powerful machines that were designed to perform specific functions in isolation and not to talk to each other; for example, if a customer cannot find what they’re looking for in-store, often, instead of ordering it for them then and there, customer service assistants will point them in the direction of the online store. These many separate databases each contain a growing mass of data about customer likes and dislikes, purchasing habits, and lifestyle factors which have been collected over the years from and about shoppers in stores, as well as from their mobiles and laptops.

Clearly, competing with online companies that have built integrated systems from the ground up and operate up-to-date, smart warehouses can be difficult if your own goods are located in 150 stores nationwide. Not to mention if your stock management system is entirely separate from your pricing and product catalogues. Connecting these systems and making use of the data goldmines they hold can be achieved, however – and it’s all down to one small piece of technology; the Application Programming Interface, or API. Having the right API is the key to unlocking the power of each disparate data source in order to create useful, actionable information for retailers, and modern mobile applications for both employees and customers.

Closing the gap

APIs, in their various forms, have been with us for years, enabling data sharing between two or more platforms, systems or applications. The transmission of data via APIs is already commonplace in ecommerce – from catalogue and inventory to recommendation engines. During the purchasing process, for example, a submissions API may work in conjunction with a geographical API to pass on the customer’s address to a third-party delivery service, as well as determine any shipping fees. Many online retailers have already understood the benefits of opening up their APIs to allow popular third-party apps to connect customers to their products.

Where there is still room for improvement, however, is in the provision of information for employees. They too may need mobile applications and modern interfaces when they are working on the shop floor or out in the warehouse. Too often, in-store systems are overlooked when it comes to modernisation and staff are left trying to master an unwieldy green-screen system to locate stock.

Joining up the dots

APIs – and the technologies that have been designed around them – can even be used to allow today’s mobile applications to access data held on a system from a previous decade. Instead of relying on figures that have been extracted from the original source and loaded into an e-commerce system, original data can be read directly from mainframes and legacy systems and displayed on modern devices. For retailers, API technology can allow staff in a bookstore to locate the whereabouts of a particular volume in order to refer a customer to a different store.

This principle of making older, disparate databases accessible can be extended further with the use of data virtualisation. Doing so makes it possible to create a “virtual” database of information directly from various different sources. For example, those social media statistics retailers aren’t quite sure what to do with can be studied in the context of purchase patterns, store data and even customer in-store behaviour. The data doesn’t have to be moved at all – which for the retailer means a solution that is more secure, more up-to-date and less expensive to maintain.

APIs present an opportunity that is not to be missed. It’s far more than simply linking the flashiest new technology to a website – it’s about making use of the gold (data) retailers already hold deep in their own databases.

Guy Tweedale is the regional VP of Rocket Software. Rocket Software help companies worldwide optimise and modernise their IBM Z, IBM Power, and MultiValue platforms to help create new user experiences

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