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Building customer experiences that evolve with the user

Decoding agile software development for retailers and e-commerce

The Covid-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst in the growth of online sales for the retail sector – which for some companies was a move they simply, and understandably, were not prepared for. This unprecedented shift to online meant that a basic e-commerce function on a website in many cases was simply not enough – instead, customers were looking for a full digital commerce experience. The new expectations taught the retail sector a valuable lesson – to survive, it’s important to be able to adapt – and fast!

Even post-pandemic, consumer needs are still evolving. More people are shopping on mobile devices, via social networks, using online marketplaces, even through IoT (Internet of Things) devices. It’s clear that retail business models now need to change to reflect these new shopping habits to capture a true omnichannel experience. Retailers need to focus on reaching customers across all of these platforms, and seamlessly connecting all consumer touchpoints.

In this article, Andy Gomes, commerce solutions director at Ciklum, discusses how agile software development can help retailers react to ever-changing customer trends and create customer experiences that remain competitive in the marketplace.

How retailers can leverage technology to boost the online experience

One thing that’s clear is that retailers can no longer rely on their in-store experience alone. The closure of physical stores as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic cemented that with high street retailer Primark losing an estimated £1.1bn in sales due to national lockdowns.

But it’s not just about offering an online shopping experience, it’s about creating a connected one. This need may see physical stores turn into ‘destinations’ where customers benefit from experiences – something that fashion brand Gucci has been doing for many years now with interactive video displays and consultations happening in-store, and then customers completing their purchases online. Or stores being used as glorified warehouses for a click-and-collect style service as we have seen with Argos who were the first UK retailer to pass £1bn annual sales through mobile. As technology continues to develop, more immersive digital experiences such as VR, augmented reality and facial recognition – blending the digital and the physical – are likely to be adopted further still by retailers looking to create a more engaging and personalised experience.

This drive towards a connected experience means retailers need to embrace digital innovation to create the engagement that customers now expect from brands that they interact with. From personalised offers sent straight to their mobile app to alternative digital payment methods and cross-channel purchasing options  – customer expectations are higher than ever, reflected by the ‘on-demand’ culture we now find ourselves in.

So retailers need an e-commerce solution that offers speed, scalability and flexibility, but that can also work across multiple channels. It is this demand for a more agile and adaptable approach that has seen retailers look for new tech solutions that give them freedom without being locked in to a platform that dictates to them when and how updates and changes can be made. Traditionally, e-commerce only had the option of monolithic architecture, which by definition means ‘composed all in one piece’. So any changes that needed to be made, such as adding new features to the website or updating the customer journey, needed to be done to the whole system, rather than to individual elements – a slow and inefficient process. Even well known big players such as SAP Commerce, SalesForce Commerce, Oracle Commerce and Magento surrendered to this new approach by decoupling the front end, but leaving the backend – the core of commerce functionalities – monolithic.

The solution lies in a MACH based approach allowing for greater innovation when it comes to offering a more customer-centric experience.

MACH – what is it?

MACH is an acronym for Microservices; API-first; Cloud-native; and Headless – a modern, composable software strategy defined by working with smaller solutions that seamlessly integrate with one another. Each component is pluggable, scalable, replaceable, and can be continuously improved allowing for a ‘best of breed’ architecture.

In simple terms, this means retailers can pick and choose what software solutions they want to work with – point of sale, payments, shipping, search facilities – which are then brought together to create the best customer experience, crucial in a competitive marketplace. It also gives them greater opportunity to iterate, and at speed, meaning new functions can be implemented quicker to suit changing market trends.

But MACH isn’t just about technology or adopting a few one-off solutions, it’s about transitioning your business model to support an ever-evolving digital business. For MACH to be adopted successfully, retailers need to have digital maturity; be prepared to take risks and experiment to deliver customer value; have a hunger for innovation; and have trust in the technology partners they work with.

How MACH can improve online retail

MACH architecture allows retailers to improve both their frontend – what is visible to the customer – and their technical capabilities at the backend by replacing traditional single-vendor application suites with a more composable, best-of-breed architecture.

Microservices allow specific functions, such as the shopping cart or a product page, to be independently managed, allowing for more flexible development with no impact on the rest of the platform. Most importantly, it allows retailers to replace business capabilities from one vendor to another.

For example, if the aim is to increase the volume of products customers are adding to their baskets, then specific features on the website, such as bulk discount promotion, can be adjusted in real-time to see the impact on customer behaviour, allowing for customisation at speed.

APIs enable flexibility to think beyond the limits of one platform or technology – seamlessly connecting systems in a more modular fashion. This allows retailers to connect to multiple frontends from a single backend in real-time – think Amazon’s digital touchpoints: mobile app, website, even virtual digital assistant Alexa – to create a truly omnichannel experience. This enables a composable approach to happen because the integrations are seamless among all components.

Cloud-native applications offer quicker wide-scaling capabilities as they operate within the cloud environment. This means in the case of Black Friday, for example, the shopping cart functionality can be scaled as a single piece of software benefiting from unlimited data storage capabilities, capable of dealing with a sudden influx of sales.

The cloud also allows for automatic built-in monitoring, functionality and infrastructure updates meaning no downtime on a website which could lead to loss of sales and be detrimental to the customer experience.

Headless refers to the decoupling of the frontend and backend, so it’s possible to independently change either the content presentation layer or the business functional (ecommerce) layer. This separation of frontend and backend makes it ideal for websites which require regular updates in terms of products, pages, payment facilities and so on. Retailers can quickly adapt how content is displayed across all channels – website, mobile, even a wearable device – offering the seamless omnichannel experience that customers crave.

With greater flexibility in the frontend design, retailers can deliver a better UX experience. This means faster loading times for pages, personalisation of content, contextual based content delivery, progressive profiling, and engagement key indicators to grow the conversion rate and reduce churn. All of these elements work together to differentiate you from your competitors – allowing creative freedom in your online shop front to deliver the tailored experience that fits in with your brand and values.

The future is MACH

Whereby dated legacy technology has previously held retailers back when it comes to improving their digital offering, MACH allows retailers to pick and choose from the best software solutions. It is this ease of customisation, scalability and adaptability that allows them to be innovative and delight customers through unique and compelling digital experiences.

We have already seen the retail landscape evolve dramatically over the last 18 months, and who knows what the next 18 months will bring? But what we do know is that retailers need to be equipped with the right tools and technology to offer a full digital experience across all consumer touchpoints – which will also continue to develop beyond where we are now. A MACH approach gives retailers the freedom to continuously develop, iterate and change, offering new products, content and experiences from the latest software solutions and crucially at speed. That said, the future is now, agility is the key to stay ahead of the pack and MACH is the way to do it.

By Andy Gomes, commerce solutions director, Ciklum

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