Digital retail: how to optimise success

GUEST BLOG: In this contributed blog post, Greg Ouillon, CTO, New Relic, talks about digital retail and how it has shifted during the pandemic.

The last year has certainly changed the high street as we know it. We have seen stores closing and shopping centres left entirely empty. As millions of retail staff across the country were put on furlough, virtually all retail businesses regardless of size had to re-invent themselves as pure-play e-commerce or hybrid click-and-collect businesses. As the UK  starts to re-emerge from lockdown and customers are returning to the high street, retailers  need to focus on optimising success, sustaining business growth and giving customers the experience they now demand.

Despite the downturn and struggle that has plagued the retail sector over the last 18 months, there is clear evidence that some brands have seen substantial growth over the past year. This growth naturally comes from online.

Experian recently reported that online retail sales rose from 12% to 34% of total retail spend in the past year – hitting levels originally predicted for 2025. In fact, the number of registered digital and traditional retail businesses grew by 8% over the last five years, 7% of these occurred in the last year. But the question is, how do retailers take advantage of this surge and optimise success to drive growth in a new omni-channel world as customers return to the high street?

We first need to take a step back and it begins with understanding the rise of digital retail.

Upping the digital game

One reason for this growth is that so many retailers have upped their game digitally. Forced by circumstances, they all had to reassess and create new customer journeys, and revamp sites to improve information and transparency. Retailers had to better connect their shop fronts to their stocks and supply chains, implement a broader choice of delivery, collect and return options. They obviously also had to scale their e-commerce architectures to cope with the surge in traffic from anxious customers and, make sure they were always-on, providing great response time and experience.

It was a matter of survival and a clear call to action. Retailers had to try and match some of the pure-play e-commerce leaders by leveraging technology like APIs to shorten delivery times and using articifical intellegence (AI)/machine learning to propose better targeted product choices. Additionally, implementing augmented reality (AR)-based virtual try-ons, expanding payment options, but also increasing the frequency of campaigns and ‘Promo days’ to drive SEO, traffic and conversion, was essential.

When applied and utilised correctly, these actions positively impact customer experience, providing the instant and trustable online journey that customers demand. Yet, with so much change to implement in a short time frame, many retailers experienced significant challenges in ensuring that their systems were always on, reliable and meeting performance needs at scale.

With the IT and technology sector rocked by a recent series of high-profile outages, retailers realised they need to have the visibility over their entire tech stack to be able to detect, understand, troubleshoot and resolve issues before they turn into customer impacting outages or poor experiences. This is the foundation to then build great customer journeys and to optimise business success.

Still, alongside the high expectation for online performance, comes the challenge that every consumer’s online experience needs to be seamless and connected.

Communication is key

The success of digital retail definitely sits on a knife-edge built from a combination of great developer and e-commerce skills, infrastructure, cloud, and the ability to scale and adapt quickly as consumer traffic changes. But in this digital and omni-channel world, all brand teams also need to build a more integrated and real-time insight into how the consumer is using their site,  whether e-Commerce teams, IT and software development, marketing, supply chain & logistics, customer service or finance

This means the performance of all customer journeys and touch-points needs to be monitored. Retailers need to understand how each touchpoint performs digitally, and which journeys or campaigns are effective. Knowing where customers drop or hang in the process, what causes friction and at which points customers can get customer support are key. And, how to maintain a shared awareness of the customer situation between stakeholders at all times.

This is something BT Shop, the consumer-facing retail division of BT, realised. To improve its customer experience, everyone has to have insight into how the consumer is using your site. Departments must then use this insight to break through siloes, and collaborate across teams to optimise customer experience, and crucially drive revenue. New Relic helped BT see this by connecting both the developer and the business teams through its observability platform.

Initially used by BT development teams to get comprehensive visibility across the software stack that runs the BT Shop site, the New Relic platform allowed both e-commerce and marketing teams to track key customer experience metrics. For example, time on site or average response time, or how a campaign performs with insight into traffic sources and revenue.

BT e-commerce teams can now understand how technology changes and software improvements impact their customers and their business, with a better connection between performance and conversions. By embracing this approach, BT Shop became far more data-aware and had a greater understanding of customer journeys. This enabled the retailer to improve experiences and upsell services across the board. For example, when BT e-commerce teams decided to only show the products they had in stock to reduce customer friction, they could immediately validate the positive impact of this decision through their User Experience and performance dashboards.

Achieving results collectively  

Retail has evolved quickly to meet new customer demands, there is now no way back. Digital is now expanding into high-street shops, combining the best of both worlds in a blended consumer experience. What was differentiation is now table sticks. It has never been more essential for retailers and brands today to nail online, and failure is looming if different departments care about different parts of the business. Bringing these teams together, so they can monitor and understand performance in real-time and collectively achieve the business’s overall goals is crucial.

Developer, e-commerce and retail teams can drastically improve collaboration, increase velocity, adaptability and continuously improve customer conversion if they work from data and a single point of truth. Put simply, when applied correctly, observability provides the visibility, metrics and dashboards across the software, the user experience and the business that enables this. Measuring sales, performance, and new technologies becomes more accessible, and customers can genuinely see and feel the benefit. Whether a brand chooses to do this through an observability platform or another technology, there is no doubt that the state of the retail landscape is changing, and we’re certainly going to see the continued growth of digital and online.

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