Holiday season trading is big business for retailers. According to National Retail Federation (NRF) data, sales in November and December account for about 20% of a retailer’s annual sales. The outlook is especially positive for this year, with an expected growth of around 4% compared to the past holiday season.
As retailers up their efforts to draw in more shoppers and take full advantage of “the most wonderful time of the year,” it pays off to be prepared. NRF expects retailers to hire between 530,000 and 590,000 temporary workers during the holiday season, and to spend millions of dollars on window displays and marketing. But many forget one critical aspect that can make the difference between a profit-making and a loss-making season: the status of their technology.
From slow e-commerce sites to out-of-stock scenarios, here are some disastrous but all-too-common seasonal-related problems that retailers face, what causes them, and what can be done to prevent them.
Issue #1: Your technology can’t sustain the high volume of transactions/increased workload
The cause: Tech outages can be extremely costly – but for many retailers, they are a familiar nightmare. A study by LogicMonitor found that 96% of organizations have experienced IT-related disruptions, and 10% of organizations have had 10 or more outages in a three-year period. Common causes of down systems include network failure, usage spikes, human error, software malfunction, hardware failure and third-party outages. An increasingly common cause of outages are disconnected legacy software systems.
“One of the issues for some retailers is the fact that systems are, in fact, a patchwork of different technologies and functions added over time,” Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData, said to RetailWire. “As the demand put on them increases, they occasionally fall over. For others, it can be about capacity – which is why a lot of retailers have failures at peak times such as Black Friday.”
The solution: Retailers should look to replace their technology siloes, which are complex to maintain and costly to support, with a single retail system. A unified system can provide them with a complete overview of their business and all its data. On top of that, the technology is delivered by a single provider, which means full support, and simpler and quicker upgrades.
“The solution is unified commerce, one version of software servicing all channels,” retail industry thought leader Ken Morris said in the RetailWire roundtable. “Until retailers wake up and embrace this vision, we will continue to see these types of outages as it is almost impossible to keep this multi-tiered Frankenstein’s Monster running without more people or less complexity.”
Issue #2: Part of your system goes down, and you can’t promptly pinpoint which part, or you don’t have the resources to fix it quickly
The cause: Again, the cause are ageing, disconnected systems unable to communicate with each other, with unsupported hardware and software. Outdated tech will complicate the day-to-day running of your organization and put a strain on your resources. On top of that, if a part fails, it can be extremely hard to identify where your system is down. Without knowing what to fix or when the disconnection happened, how can you get your system back up and running, and minimize disruption to your business?
One of our clients, discount fashion retailer Gallo Clothing, faced this exact scenario one Christmas eve – its busiest sales day of the year. The store was full of shoppers when suddenly the cash registers stopped working. Gallo’s systems had stopped communicating with each other, but where had the glitch happened? The company couldn’t identify and fix the problem straight away, so managers instructed staff to process all transactions manually. With cashiers forced to write every item and price and calculate the total for every single shopper down, each sales transaction became painfully slow, and the queues grew longer and longer. Customers began to complain, and others left the store to shop elsewhere. Some never returned, unwilling to give the business another chance.
The solution: Retailers no longer need to put up with unreliable, siloed software systems that threaten the smooth running of the business. But they must be willing to invest in their future, rather than patching up old systems and hoping they won’t fail when they need them most.
“Retailers have spent years not spending enough on technology and building a robust future-proof architecture,” roundtable panelist Oliver Guy said to RetailWire.
The good news is that modern, unified commerce technology platforms aren’t as expensive as retailers may think, and they can also deliver a fast return on investment. Gallo Clothing now uses LS Retail technology as the foundation for its businesses. Not only has it not experienced any issues since the implementation of the solution, but it has also achieved record profits. The company says it’s because the system is so fast and efficient. Gallo’s president told us: “In the years since implementing the LS Retail software, we’ve seen more customers, sold more products and had much shorter lines.”
Issue #3: You can’t react fast enough to customer demand, and end up disappointing customers with out-of-stock items
The cause: Out of stock items are one of consumers’ biggest gripes. They’re also hugely damaging to a retailer’s bottom line. The “Out of stock, out of luck” study by global research and advisory firm IHL Group found that retailers are missing out on nearly US$1 trillion in sales because of out-of-stock items. And almost a third of shoppers ended up turning to Amazon when the product they wanted wasn’t in stock at their local store
Many retailers admit that the reason they experience out-of-stock scenarios is because they don’t have a complete view of their inventory, their data is unreliable, and they lack the tools to analyze their data and make accurate forecasts.
The solution: You can no longer get by with running weekly or even daily reports to keep track of their business. Today, you need a real-time view – especially during busy trading periods.
Luxury fashion retailer Club 21|Armani Exchange gained this visibility when they upgraded their financial, admin, warehouse management, buying & merchandising, CRM and POS systems to a single software environment.
Clare Vella, retail director, told us about the first Black Friday after implementing their new LS Retail software. “It was 10pm on Friday evening. We were watching the sales hourly, and one store was seeing an enhanced level of trade coming through,” she said. “We were able to respond to this by calling the warehouse and getting an emergency delivery to that store, which was critical at that point. We increased our sales by well over three times the amount we could have done within that store that weekend by being able to respond in real time.”
Issue #4: You can’t easily accept returns across channels, or see where the item a customer bought/wants has ended up
The cause: While many retailers claim to have a true omnichannel strategy, meaning all their channels are seamlessly integrated, the reality for most is that they operate their physical stores and e-commerce as separate entities. But this siloed approach throws up a number of challenges, including a disconnected customer experience, lack of visibility across the organization, and an inaccurate view of inventory.
When a customer buys something online and then wants to exchange or refund it in store, your systems may be holding you back even if you’d like to facilitate the transaction. Perhaps the customer has paid online using PayPal, and your in-store staff can’t see the transaction, or don’t know how to issue a refund. Or maybe a shopper comes in specifically to swap an item, only to find that it is out of stock. All of these issues are caused by a disconnect between retailers’ online and in-store systems.
“The underlying issue is making sure that systems can talk to each other in near real time, which is needed to ensure that transactions and inventory can be fully reconciled, and that the business and its customers have reliable information on their accounts,” the ECR Community said in its report “Buy online, return in store”.
The solution: When you manage all channels using a single system and database, each customer account can be kept updated in near real time. And because inventory, logistics, sales and returns systems are linked through individual product identification and customer accounts, each item can be traced and located at any point in time. The result is that you’re able to work at speed, minimize product losses and ensure all transactions are reconciled.
Importantly, regardless of the channel they use to browse and shop, customers won’t be disappointed by out-of-stock scenarios as your online store draws from the general ledger to pull up real-time stock information.
If you want to find out more about how we can help you prepare your business for the festive season with future-proof, scalable IT, please get in touch.