Chasing Retail Giants with Microservices

Steve Jones
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The unstoppable growth of ecommerce is providing internet pure-plays the opportunity to benefit from economies of scale to drive their business, but this pure-play success isn’t putting traditional bricks-and-mortar stores that are part of an omnichannel mix out of the picture entirely – thanks to microservices.

A recent industry survey suggests only a third of organisations are currently using microservices, but 70% of the remainder are actively investigating the approach. Although it may be a more straightforward process to adopt for the likes of Amazon, eBay, Netflix and ASOS, due to their minimal legacy footprint and leaner, software-driven business models, there are still clear benefits to realise for more established bricks-and-mortar retailers, who wish to rapidly innovate and expand to steal a march on their competitors.

Microservice architecture allows businesses to manage parts of larger projects individually, avoiding blanketed updates or uploads, which can result in system delays or down-time. Their purpose is to increase flexibility throughout the business offering, allowing an enterprise to be more competitive and to become increasingly agile, as they can adapt parts of the business in isolation. This way of operating is increasingly key for today’s High Street retailers, as they look to compete with, and adapt to omnichannel operating models.

The path to adopting a microservices architecture does not require wholesale digital transformation as it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. It is entirely possible for retailers to simply dip their toes in the microservices world without starting from scratch. This is likely to be music to businesses’ ears as they look to keep up with, and exceed, their omnichannel customer’s growing expectations and demands when it comes to online capabilities.

A simple way of entering the microservice approach is to analyse and identify key responsibilities within the brand’s overall activity and look to separate and isolate these into smaller, and more manageable responsibilities. The key to this exercise is identifying the right components to move into microservices – typically the components that require greater flexibility and consequently cause the most frustration are good options.

It is important that consumers’ paths to purchase are considered when designing a microservice structure. By breaking down the customer journey into a logical map, retailers can then devise how different stages should be divided, for example, exploration, research, payment and tracking. This way retailers will get a deep understanding of what customers need at each step along the sales cycle and what functionalities are beneficial at that moment in time. By objectively analysing what currently works and what doesn’t, in this way, businesses can focus on certain areas that prove profitable and address those that may be hindering conversion rates in an isolated fashion.

Moreover, as each service can be designed, developed, tested, deployed, managed and maintained independently of the others, retailers can significantly reduce ‘time to market’, allowing for increased creativity and innovation, maximising effectiveness and functionality for the entire platform. This also allows for new software to be available faster, meaning fresh deployments can be incorporated quickly benefiting the business straight away.

Microservices allows teams the discretion to publish and subscribe to services without leaning on central integration and ops functions. Internal and external development teams now have an application program interface (API) toolkit they can exploit to innovate and rapidly develop features that provide competitive advantage. Deployment is no longer tied to monolithic upgrades, so testing and release is a much smaller overhead.

If designed and built properly, microservice architectures are more flexible and resilient than pre-existing approaches. This, in part, is because this kind of jigsaw design removes any need to commit fully to any part of the technology stack, as all aspects can be replaced or edited.

With today’s digital savvy consumers expecting more from High Street retailers than ever before, and demanding the same experiences they receive by the likes of Amazon from smaller organisations, it is time for retailers to recognise the need to commence their digital transformation. And essentially this is where a microservice approach, that can be carefully implemented into existing ecosystems, may prove to be High Street’s saviour.

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