By Iain Ramage, VP channel, Rocket Software.
The retail sector has long been ahead of the game in the technology race. Loyalty cards were collecting customer data several years before Facebook came into existence and the first highly publicised examples of “business intelligence” related to the discovery that shops could sell more beer by locating it near the nappy isle.
Resellers have been placing bets on what will be the next major innovation to hit the sector – will it be artificial intelligence to predict customer behaviour, virtual reality to entrance potential buyers in, or perhaps robots to replace human labour in stock replenishment and even customer service?
All three technologies may well play a part in the future of the retail sector, but the reality is that the retail industry is still all about data. Data about customers – who they are, how they buy, what they buy and when they buy; data about products – pricing, availability and location; and data about the business as a whole. Artificial intelligence itself depends on vast stores of information in order to learn, and both virtual reality and robots are meaningless unless applied on the basis of a firm understanding of customer desires, which requires data. Today’s shoppers want to browse, review, buy and return their goods across a range of different channels – and from a range of different devices. Retailers can no longer regard an ecommerce facility as a useful add on; it’s essential that information from all parts of the business is accessible.
For many larger retailers, this poses a problem. Competing with an online start-up that operates a single warehouse can be difficult if your own goods are located in 150 stores nationwide and your stock management system is entirely separate from your pricing and product catalogues. While the start-up will have built an integrated system from the ground up, longer-established retailers will often have many separate databases containing a growing mass of data about customer likes and dislikes, purchasing habits and lifestyles which have been collected from and about shoppers in stores, as well as from their mobiles and laptops.
For resellers, this presents a great opportunity, based on a small piece of technology that isn’t futuristic or dazzling, and which has existed for decades – the Application Programming Interface, or API. Many major retailers still run much of their core operations on machines that are large and powerful, but which were designed to perform specific functions in isolation. The API is the key that can unlock the power of all these disparate data sources in order to create useful, actionable information for retailers, and modern mobile applications for employees and customers.
APIs: closing the gap between online and offline
APIs, in their various forms, have been with us for years, enabling data sharing between two or more platforms, systems or applications. The transmission of data via APIs is already commonplace in ecommerce, from catalogue and inventory to recommendation engines. During the purchasing process, for example, a submissions API may work in conjunction with a geographical API to pass on the customer’s address to a third-party delivery service, and also determine any shipping fees. Many online retailers have also understood the benefits of opening up their APIs to allow other apps to connect customers to their products.
Where there is still room for improvement, however, is in the provision of information for employees. They too may need mobile applications and modern interfaces when they are on the shop floor or out in the warehouse. Too often, in-store systems are overlooked when it comes to modernisation and staff are left trying to master an unwieldy green-screen system to locate stock. It’s astonishing how many customers are referred back to the company’s website in order to obtain an out-of-stock item, even when they are physically in a shop at the time.
Joining up the dots
APIs - and the technologies that have been designed around them - can be used to allow today’s mobile applications to access data held on a system from a previous decade. Instead of relying on figures that have been carried across into an ecommerce system, original data can be extracted and displayed on modern devices. In banking, this has been used to present customers with account information on a mobile phone, based on data that is frequently held on a mainframe. For retailers, API technology can allow staff in a bookstore to locate the whereabouts of a particular volume in order to refer a customer to a different store.
This principle of making older databases accessible can be extended further with the use of data virtualisation. This makes it possible to create a “virtual” database of information extracted from various different sources. So those social media statistics can be studied in the context of purchase patterns, store data and even customer in-store behaviour. The data doesn’t have to be moved at all – which for the retailer means a solution that is faster, more secure and much, much less expensive.
For the channel, APIs present an opportunity that is not to be missed. It’s far more than simply linking the flashiest new technology to a website – it’s about helping retailers dig for the gold that they hold deep in their own databases.