Interoperability the Key to Managing Peak Retail Demands

19 June 2024 | 15 Shares

Regardless of the geographies in which a retailer operates, peaks in demand are an inevitable yet very welcome fact of life in operations. Where once retailers spent many days in the run-up to a big sale event or promotion readying their physical retail outlets, today most stores also have to make ready their online retail operations: the virtual storefront, warehouses, distribution network, payment platforms, online marketing activities and a dozen more elements besides.

Whether it’s Singles’ Day, Cyber Monday, Christmas, or Eid al-Fitr, surges in demand for retail stores, both online and offline, contribute significantly to many businesses’ revenues. The ability to preserve excellent customer service and fulfil every order seamlessly depends on many of those moving parts functioning as themselves, but more critically, as cogs in the machinery of a larger retail machine.

At the consumer’s end, a late delivery or two may go largely unnoticed, but failing systems that underpin the retail experience at a significant scale can unleash a deluge of bad press that is difficult to recover from. Attempts to repair the damage after the fact and extraordinary measures taken during peak demand periods can be so costly that increased sales revenue is lost in additional costs.

Complex Stack

The potential for problems stems from the complexity of operations rather than an inability to plan and anticipate periods of peak demand. Like fashion, retail preferences and markets change very quickly, and in this vertical, the definition of legacy technology is less forgiving than elsewhere.

For example, a decision to make large investments in online retail made just a few years ago may now be eclipsed by the recent trend in consumers wishing to try before they buy in a physical retail store. Warehouse networks and associated technology platforms like DOMs (distributed order management systems) may be optimised for a channel that’s less favoured this year. And next year…who can say?

While XaaS solutions for retailers offer answers to some of the issues around the speed and cost of IT deployments, in some ways, cloud-based solutions exhibit the same underlying problem that so-called legacy platforms present. The issue of interoperability remains to a significant degree, regardless of whether core systems are in-house, cloud-based, monolithic or container-based and cloud-native.

Given that an agile approach to the software used to run a retail operation is optimal (to handle peaks and to change to reflect changes in the market), it’s the interconnection of operational technology that is critical to get right.

API Answers

In an ideal world, every piece of software in the stack would be built using open standards and an API-first approach. However, with many proprietary systems, that’s not entirely the case, and it often isn’t with bespoke, black box software that forms a basis in some enterprises.

Even with every part of the core infrastructure presenting API layers, there remains the significant overhead of developing the data layer that GETs and POSTs to APIs, parses EDI, negotiates FTP, and maintains robust connections.

Setting a development goal of stringing together a unified system that does all that is a fine concept, but it does not account for the moving target of the retail operator’s IT stack: finish an API-based data layer in 12-18 months, and it’s likely that at least one of the connected platforms will change significantly in that timeframe.

Self-made Solutions

A team dedicated to maintaining multi-system interoperability will always find itself reacting to events out of its control, like an API update or application upgrade. In fact, such a team may only be made aware of changes somewhere in a complex topology when production systems break. It’s Sod’s Law, of course, that breaking changes will occur under the real-life stress tests of Black Friday, Cyber Monday or similar.

The number of moving parts in a modern retailer’s technology includes backbone ERPs, point-of-sale, warehousing and distribution, e-commerce platforms and a host of ancillary systems like CRM and Martech. It’s difficult to simulate peak demand stresses to determine where failures or bottlenecks might occur in such a multi-faceted whole and, therefore, develop coherent plans that ensure high levels of performance throughout a retailer’s sales cycle with its inevitable highs and lows.

However, specialist providers exist whose sole purpose is to provide robust connectivity between all the technology elements in modern retail.

RetailPatching for Perfection

Patchworks is a vendor-agnostic cloud platform that addresses the challenge of integration complexity faced by retailers and partners. It creates the data layer concept discussed above and lets users see information flowing in real time from system to system. Via its intuitive interface, it gives up-to-the-minute metrics on orders, stock, distribution system status, and so on – the details are determined, of course, by the platforms used throughout the chain.

Patchworks deployment can be achieved in-house or via one of their certified partners, with a no-code/low-code interface that helps visualise and simplify connectivity between data sources: e-commerce platforms, WMS, DOM, common ERPs, CRMs, databases and business analytics platforms. Essentially anything with an API. Retailers can synchronise inventory, orders, and customer data across various platforms with no specific vendor lock-in or dependent system. That means IT teams can change the elements of the IT stack in production and still retain the rich source of meta-operational data and know that systems will continue to update one another.

It allows a high degree of flexibility and scale and lets companies test their systems under load to better plan and provision for periods of peak demand. The cohesive operational structure means that as the retailer’s business model evolves, new and changing elements can plug-and-play with the rest of the stack. There are also pre-built connectors and applications designed solely for the retail industry, so many operators will find that their production systems can be integrated quickly and reliably.

You can learn more about one of their customers Triumph Motorcycles here, who needed help integrating John Lewis’ The Edge marketplace, as well as Commercetools, VirtualStock and Torque ahead of last year’s peak trading season.

Jim Herbert, CEO at Patchworks emphasised the importance and value of staying connected in a recent interview where he said, “As retailers prepare for peak season, staying connected and agile is crucial. As a proud member of the MACH Alliance and a leader in composable commerce, Patchworks empowers businesses to seamlessly integrate their systems, ensuring a smooth, efficient operation that can adapt to demand surges. This connectivity not only enhances customer experiences but also drives cost effectiveness and revenue growth by optimising every aspect of the retail process all year round.”

You can learn more about Patchworks and the ways it’s unifying retail platforms online and in-store by heading to its website and speaking to a retail sector advisor.