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IT Support of Retail Operations During the Pandemic

Business

Dec 2, 2020 - 5 minutes read

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Michał Koziarowski Chapter Leader, Technical Architect

He works at Objectivity as a Chapter Leader and Technical Architect. He’s been delivering solutions for one of UK’s most successful retailers for over 10 years. He’s helped design, develop, maintain, and support many retail projects and systems. After work, he occasionally plays guitar and piano as well as snowboards and plays squash

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In the current global environment, retail companies can’t exist without the operational day-to-day technical support of their systems. When everything runs smoothly, customers tend to forget about the retail support companies that make this happen. Efforts of people who work in this sector are often taken for granted.

However, during the times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, issues arise more often and entire systems or applications can go down. That’s when IT support is more important than ever.

Let’s go over a few examples of non-standard support activities that you have to prepare for. It’s not going to be as easy as you think!

Improve Monitoring Systems

Let’s consider a scenario in which a lockdown has been announced. Your Client has already informed you that their stores will be temporarily closing country by country, and they might end up closing all their brick-and-mortar stores to customers. You already have your monitoring in place, so you feel well-prepared for this situation, but is it actually the case?

Your monitoring system might be among the best in the world. However, has it ever been tested against rare edge scenarios? What’s going to happen if it won’t receive any new data related to sales or orders for days, weeks, or even months? This might be a cause for concern.

In a situation like this, you should proactively run an impact analysis and try to locate vulnerable places or gaps in the systems. Identify the weak points of your setup and the areas that your monitoring doesn’t cover. When you find such a gap, you need to find a solution. If you have enough time, implement extra monitoring or improve your system, to handle the problem successfully. If there’s no time for developing improvements, you can always plan manual actions and find other workarounds. Create a temporary solution to buy yourself some time. Then use it to plan and develop the proper improvement to get a permanent fix.

Reconfigure Systems When Necessary

Many companies operating in the retail industry base their replenishment and allocation systems on COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) products with advanced AI algorithms. To make their predictions, these algorithms analyse vast amounts of stock and sales data, trends, weather, geographical location, and many other factors. As a result, they can estimate the right amount of products that they need to order to a specific store (to accurately reflect demand). The stock is then automatically ordered and delivered to the store. At first glance, the idea seems perfect. Store managers don’t have to waste time on manual ordering and can focus on other important areas of their work instead.

However, in time of crisis, like the current pandemic, this might be suboptimal. COTS products with advanced algorithms are often unable to rapidly respond to changing circumstances. Lockdown causes an immediate drop in the number of products sold every day. The AI algorithm doesn’t take that into account and orders more products than the store can realistically sell in this situation. A problem like this can occur when the store is still open but has significantly fewer customers, or even worse, when it’s closed completely! What to do with all those products? Where to store them when the store hasn’t prepared for this outcome?

You should always make sure that your support team proactively informs the retail Client about such threats, turns off the push algorithms for certain stores, and switches to manual ordering only. This will give the store managers more control over the amount of ordered products. As a result, this allows for agility and reduces not only the levels of stock but also the costs of transportation.

Prepare for Non-Standard Requests

If you’re a retail support engineer, you likely have a list of well-tested, frequently executed Standard Procedures to support day-to-day activities and keep the business operational. Every support team feels very comfortable working in such a controlled environment, in accordance with specific procedures.

However, difficult times and rapidly changing circumstances require non-standard, out-of-the-box thinking and problem-solving. Knowledge of existing systems can help you respond to business needs quickly and effectively.

Closing stores and switching to manual ordering results in an increased stock level in warehouses. By preventing the stores from having a surplus of products, we shift it to the warehouses. However, despite the substantially greater capacity, they too can’t hold the stock forever while the new shipments keep coming in. Your retail Client might have cancelled some of the purchase orders or postponed delivery dates, but numerous deliveries would still arrive at the warehouses.

To handle this situation, your retail Client needs the ability to see the warehouse stock level in real time. They also need the possibility to quickly move the stock from one warehouse to another. This way, they’ll be able to use the available storage space in the best possible way to accommodate the incoming deliveries.

These problems can arise even if the stores remain open. Limitations regarding the number of customers allowed in the store at a given time or the time they’re allowed to spend inside also have a significant impact on the business. Your retail Client might want to create ready-to-buy sets of products (like food sets or boxes). Thanks to this, their customers can come in, pick up a set of products, pay and leave the store quicker, making room for other customers waiting in front of the store.

Often, there’s no time to set up a development team who will be able to create complex and sophisticated new functionalities for your system. However, the support team is usually well-acquainted with the systems and the Client. As such, they can often provide a quick, temporary solution to meet the Client’s business needs. This is something that you have to prepare for. Helping your Client in such difficult situations is guaranteed to benefit both parties in the long run. A Client’s issue is your issue if you’re a member of the support team. You have to understand the business requirement and find the optimal remedial action.

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Michał Koziarowski Chapter Leader, Technical Architect

He works at Objectivity as a Chapter Leader and Technical Architect. He’s been delivering solutions for one of UK’s most successful retailers for over 10 years. He’s helped design, develop, maintain, and support many retail projects and systems. After work, he occasionally plays guitar and piano as well as snowboards and plays squash

See all Michał's posts

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