By Julius Carrell, business development head, Enactor
The scale of change retail has undergone in the past decade is without precedent. Technology advancements in cloud, mobile, social networking, IoT and AI have transformed consumer behaviour and indeed, the whole industry. Better connected and informed than ever, new generations of digital-savvy consumers demand unique, personalised shopping experiences tailored to their needs.
To stay in the game, retailers must embrace unified commerce and provide high-quality, consistent experiences across every channel and the whole customer journey. That’s easier said than done. According to the 2019 Retail Technology Report from Total Retail, integrating new technology solutions with existing, often legacy systems is cited by 70% of those surveyed as the top tech-related challenge.
This is understandable: the closed, monolithic legacy systems built in the brick and mortar age were never engineered to make it easy to add a new payment system, introduce personalisation or launch a new channel. To implement any of these services, your developers have to make extensive changes to databases, source code and front ends. This manual work is not only time and resource intensive, but it is also prone to human error.
Despite this, few retailers are in a position to rip out and replace all their old systems; especially when Brexit and COVID-19 are already throwing massive spanners into day-to-day operations and sales.
Making sense of headless microservices
Fortunately there is a way to modernise without having to do a ‘big-bang’ IT overhaul. Platforms that use what’s known as a ‘headless microservices’ architecture let retailers integrate existing systems and add newer applications in phases over time. Let’s explore this in more detail.
In a “headless” system, the user interface – an application or a website – is decoupled from the databases and storage systems on the back end. Compared to monolithic legacy systems, in headless systems, any changes made to the applications don’t require corresponding changes to underlying data or code.
Microservices take the concept of decoupling even further by breaking applications down into smaller components, or services. Each service is developed and maintained separately. Because each runs autonomously, services can be updated, deployed, and scaled to respond to application-specific needs.
Microservices have several advantages. Firstly, it’s easier to build an application when concentrating on one service, like introducing a new payment system. It is also easier to maintain an application when it is divided into smaller pieces.
There are many advantages of putting headless and microservices together. Crucially, a headless microservice architecture makes unified commerce possible by allowing new applications to run on top of existing legacy systems. This enables complex large-scale retail operations to become fast, agile and responsive. Since these systems are often designed for non-technical people, retailers are empowered to build their own services, gaining total control of their applications and their user interfaces.
Retailers today live and die on their responsiveness; whether it’s being able to react to trends quickly, run snap promotions or launch new channels. Let’s say you want to run a snap promotion on oven cleaner during the COVID-19 lockdown. The right Headless system should be easy enough for anyone in your marketing team to change the configuration of your front end e-commerce layer without having to involve IT. Tools that present workflows visually can even allow non-developers to design entire applications and business processes, giving them control over their destinies and the capability to support future requirements.
Headless systems based on open standards offer high flexibility and portability and ensure applications can be easily reused. The use of open standards combined with a visual interface ensures further that IT and business users can collaborate and react to market changes with unprecedented speed.
Whatever comes next – be prepared
In today’s fast-paced world with Millennials and Generation Z dominating, unified commerce is the way to engage with customers through old and new channels – from chatbots to social networks to high-tech brand showrooms. With the right headless microservice platform in place, retailers can amortise their investments in existing IT systems while building new services and applications. Old and new work together to enable a ‘frictionless’ brand experience across all customer touchpoints and future-proof your operations for whatever changes come next.