If retailers think online shopping in 2021 is about the simple exchange of goods for money, they’re doing it wrong. If they aren’t delivering a connected and engaging customer journey, they’re not going to keep pace with the competition and they’ll quickly fall into obscurity. Customers don’t just want to buy a product — they want an experience. And, the more personalized it is, the better — from email confirmations to SMS dispatch notifications, right through to a happy and timely handover on the doorstep.
Brands also need to own this entire journey, otherwise they run the risk of losing control and any chance of retaining their customers along with it. If a customer experiences downtime on a website or an outdated mobile app with a broken UX, they’ll bounce to a competitor. If a retailer’s online infrastructure can’t cope with a sudden spike in demand following, say, a Black Friday sale, those customers are unlikely to return.
This can be even more challenging as COVID-19 accelerated the move to online shopping more than any other time in history. Before the pandemic, ecommerce accounted for approximately 16% of all retail. Today, every one in five purchases is made online, largely due to changing consumer habits in the wake of lockdowns and other restrictions. The UN, which carried out the research, referred to this as the most dramatic increase in ecommerce activity on record.
To stay competitive in the era of ecommerce, fast responsiveness is key, no matter the business model. A high level of services unique to each customer, delivered with little or no downtime, is what consumers now expect. This means that, for a business, velocity, time to market, continuous improvements and ease of innovation are basic requirements for survival in a marketplace that is becoming increasingly global and yet customized. In other words, they need to be agile enough to put a new idea into production within a matter of hours instead of weeks, whether that’s a new app or a new website feature. Thankfully, cloud-native architecture can provide a path forward, and it’s more accessible than a lot of retailers realize.
From Monolith to Microservices
A cloud-native approach facilitates speed, agility, scalability, customization and all of the other things online retailers in 2021 value so much. Until recently, all retailers had to work with were clunky, cumbersome, monolithic systems, where making one small change was akin to trying to steer a big heavy ship into a new direction. If we think of a monolithic system as a Jenga tower, where removing just one block or trying to add in a new one could send the whole thing crashing down, it’s easy to see how unsuitable they are for a fast-paced modern environment. The monolithic approach stifles innovation because adding new functions is too painful and simply comes with too much risk.
A cloud-native approach, on the other hand, embraces microservice architecture and container technology. If functions in a monolithic system could be likened to precarious Jenga blocks that were entirely dependent on each other, functions in a microservices architecture are more like independent instruments in an orchestra that can fade in and out as needed to change the overall experience.
A microservice is a small piece of individual software that is designed to do one thing and do it well. In online retail, for instance, a microservice might be employed to manage a product catalogue or accept a particular method of payment. These are things that would otherwise be tied together in one messy monolithic web, making it difficult for businesses to make the smallest of changes. This won’t cut it in the age of multi-touch point experiences that are built on choice and customer expectation.
Cloud-Native Done Right
One of the earliest and most successful adopters of cloud-native and microservices architecture was Amazon. Back in the 1990s, when Amazon was a glorified online bookstore, it had very little need for speed or agility. But as it began to expand its services and gain more traction in the ‘00s it started to encounter huge difficulties when it came to fulfilling online demand and matching customer expectations. It needed the ability to quickly add in a new product line, search function or payment method without toppling the whole apple cart. Website downtime simply wasn’t an option. If that sounds familiar, it’s because this is where a lot of retailers get stuck as they begin to grow.
The answer? Cloud-native microservices.
Instead of having to steer an entire ship and work to keep it afloat every time it wanted to add a new function or improve the customer experience, Amazon broke its monolithic system up into small, independently-running applications — or microservices. Now, every function and touch point, from Alexa to the ‘buy it now’ button on their website, can be worked on independently without disrupting the customer experience. Amazon can make on-the-fly changes and upgrade elements of its website, mobile app and voice channel at any time, knowing everything is backed up and reversible with zero downtime.
Go Micro, or go Home
A decade ago, the average consumer typically used two touch points when purchasing an item. Perhaps they’d do a bit of research on their tablet or phone and then mull it over before sitting down at their laptop or desktop to make a purchase. Today’s consumer uses an average of six touch points during their purchasing journeys, with 50% using more than four. If that sounds unbelievable, consider the sheer number of touch points in a typical home that simply weren’t there a decade ago.
We live in an age where we can ask Alexa to restock our cupboards or purchase clothes through our Smart TV. Even our favorite supermarkets have dedicated mobile apps with next day delivery as standard. So if retailers really want to embrace the multi-touch point experience they shouldn’t necessarily be thinking big; they should be thinking micro. That’s the value of cloud native.
Pini Reznik, Chief Revenue Officer and Co-founder of Container Solutions, is a developer and configuration manager who’s spent more than 20 years improving development processes and shortening time to market. This article uses information from a book Reznik co-wrote, ‘Cloud Native Transformation: Practical Patterns for Innovation’, which you can download for free here. The book unpacks a limited risk way to achieving a cloud native transformation through a proven methodology called Think Design Build Run (TDBR) which looks at technology, strategy and organization culture.