Written by Thomas LaRock, Head Geekat SolarWinds.

Two years ago, the digitisation of retail experiences might have seemed like possibly beneficial or nice-to-have investments we would eventually make as an industry. Fast-forward to the present, where many retailers struggle to survive based on their success with new technologies that might not have even existed five years ago.

Retailers who weren’t already digitising the customer journey were often forced to do so quickly or stop operations. Pundits have even said the pandemic has sped the shift to digital retail by about five years, ushering in new customer experiences—from mobile-only purchases to touchless technology and expanding physical warehouse inventory with third-party virtual catalogues.

Amid all this digital change, it’s not just retailers who are losing sleep—IT pros are as well. Like other industries, retail weathered the digital shift within weeks, and this eye-watering speed has introduced a whole host of new challenges. So, what can IT pros do to resolve technical fires with limited resources, sustain digitisation, and preserve a positive customer experience for retail?

Orchestrating budgets, not just infrastructure

To be clear, many retailers made remarkable strides toward digital retail as a response to the challenges of the pandemic. This was already an eventuality, as pre-pandemic IT infrastructure—shaped by decades of traditional data centre operations—increasingly struggled to meet the rapidly evolving technological demands of modern digital retail.

With this came a cohort of new demands: increased on-premises virtualisation, new cloud-based applications and services software, new digital tools, and platform-specific workflows, hyperconverged infrastructure, hybrid operations, and—of course—new orchestration to manage it all.

Next, even decades-old CapEx practices for allocating IT budgets (like optimising spend for redundant capacity and storage over compute resources) had to find their place alongside “just-in-time” variable OpEx subscription spending. This transformation alone can be significant. Gone are the short-lived acute pains of wrangling one-time sunk costs for IT. Now retailers must manage chronic long-term concern about surprise service invoices each month.

With cloud-based services, data centre subscription provisioning, and “as a service” software, underutilisation can be a bigger problem than overutilisation. Extra headroom is no longer a pragmatic investment for a rainy day. With cloud, capacity is billed by the hour—used or not—and overprovisioning means lost opportunity, consuming budget better invested somewhere else. For organisations facing budget cuts, IT cost optimisation and expenditure scrutiny are further heightened.  

As a result, retail IT teams behind the transformation curve may be forced to simultaneously trim operations while learning how to deliver seamless digital retail experiences. Automation and orchestration can go a long way toward reducing the distraction of routine manual administration tasks, but to be effective, they require comprehensive monitoring and performance visualisation.

Teams can’t orchestrate what they can’t see, and many of the new platforms and services retailers are adopting don’t come ready to observe out of the box. IT teams are adopting new tools and techniques for network and application infrastructure monitoring, cloud-native monitoring, and end-user monitoring to fill visibility gaps.

They’re realising monitoring that extends from the back end to front-facing systems to the actual digital experiences of customers is critical. Without real-time visibility over their digital domain, IT pros will struggle to govern and decisively address emerging issues before they impact the retail experience.

Not just about visibility, but agility

Another aspect of orchestration combined with monitoring is its inherent value in progressive digital change. In the highly competitive retail landscape, there’s always the need to do better—to offer faster and more seamless quality experiences than other e-tailers in the segment. This means any retail application, system, or storefront will see constant optimisation and reiteration, requiring an equally nimble IT foundation as support.

Technology professionals who’ve deployed solutions at intense speed will tell you they always expect something to go wrong—the art is identifying and mitigating risk for what might break as a result. As retailers rapidly shift more business online, IT’s pace of implementation will further accelerate, adding even more complexity and change risk.

Monitoring (especially monitoring that’s easy for IT pros to adapt to their unique infrastructures) provides visibility to evaluate proposed changes against available resources, identify bottlenecks, and anticipate the impact of future transformational imperatives.   

Fortunately, retailers are seeing observability success, with new tools to monitor and orchestrate and IT organisations paving the way to more interesting possibilities. Many are implementing the best aspects of DevOps and the agile methodology, continuously collecting and distributing performance metrics from all aspects of the business.

They’re learning nothing elevates digital experiences more than shared “digital truth” about the thousands of details underpinning digital services. New solutions, like NLP chatbots or e-commerce mobile applications, are deployed with greater confidence when IT pros are assured, they can identify issues before users do. Emerging technologies—like AIOps—may further automate and optimise digital storefronts and related services, assuming the quality of operational metrics is high.

Stepping into the customer’s shoes

The silver lining for retailers is the shift to monitoring digital customer user experiences has given them the ability to better gauge the shape of customer experiences of all types, including traditional in-store operations. Integrated monitoring combining established on-prem metrics with cloud analytics and software as a service (SaaS) utilisation data replaces assumptions, habits, and conclusion bias with facts.

It should be easy for anyone on the team to identify dips in application use and impact and begin the process of troubleshooting the root cause of limitations or issues. Like great retail display lighting, monitoring illuminates once dark areas of the retail experience, allowing retailers to optimise for shopping experiences capable of driving sales.

And in this new normal, technical hiccups may do more than lose customers here and there or drive them to other, less convenient interaction channels. Frequent outages or errors and cascading technical problems result in digital shopping experiences that come up short against competitors. Shoppers simply move on to the next website or mobile app and migrate spending elsewhere.

When it comes to improving the customer experience, good monitoring can carry retailers quite far. Great monitoring becomes a decision platform, ready to assist IT with their most difficult decisions—especially when time is limited. As a customer who’s also an IT pro, you may already be able to identify the brands who are metrics-first, if only in their ability to rapidly transform your experiences without issues. Immersive shopping, product diversity, and pricing all influence visitors’ path to pressing “check out now,” but the quality of these experiences and your visitors’ sense of delight truly seals the deal.