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How the challenges of Black Friday 2020 will differ from any other year – industry experts discuss

Black Friday is an immovable event – occurring at the same time of year, every year. With each iteration, we see more customer demand as more shoppers clock onto the best deals they can get in time for Christmas. And usually, we see more people flocking to the high street to get them.  

But this year will be a little different, as lockdown 2.0 will still be forcing non-essential high street retailers to keep their doors closed when 27th November rolls around. As a result, experts predict this is going to cause a huge influx of shoppers looking to get the best deals online.  

This presents a whole host of obstacles for retailers – whether its cybersecurity, ensuring websites don’t crash, or providing good customer experience without the face-to-face interaction. Here, industry experts provide advice as to just how they might overcome these challenges.  

Ensuring a streamlined customer journey  

Maintaining a loyal customer base is indeed a key priority for retailers this year as online competition is increasing. In fact, “research has found that 69% of customer service leaders in the UK have seen an increase in customer expectations since February 2020 as many of us turn to online channels to speak to customer service teams or to secure our goods,” according to Simon Johnson, General Manager UK and Ireland, Freshworks 

“The same research also found that with rising customer expectations, high customer contact volumes, and volatile staffing changes, businesses turned to technology for a stable way to cope with the crisis.” 

Rohit Gupta, VP & Head of Products & Resources at Cognizant, agrees technology is the best way forward, explaining that this Black Friday “requires a renewed focus on both customer experience and accessibility, as well as website resilience and ensuring correct load-balancing and backup is in place for back-end systems to facilitate a seamless customer experience.” 

That’s because “every interaction matters,” according to Marc Zottner, Field CTO EMEA, VMware Tanzu. “The first time a customer goes through the entire online checkout process, only to be told their items are out of stock, might be the last time they visit a particular site.” In order to prepare for Black Friday, Marc emphasises that retailers’ backend teams must ensure their software is prepared for upcoming traffic spikes, so they can process orders during peak times and deal with any troubleshooting in real-time…it’s up to the technology teams to make sure things run smoothly. 

Catering to all customer needs  

But beyond ensuring a smooth online experience when it comes to back-end technology, retailers should also be considering how they can meet the needs of all their customers, no matter what demographic. Because this year, the online shopping world is all any of us have, meaning it isn’t just young consumers that businesses should be catering for. Gupta believes this is something that often gets overlooked. “Most online stores today highlight the fundamental inequalities in our current digital world, in which e-commerce experiences are built for a user-normative experience. In these current economic conditions, demographics for online retailers need to expand to include people who would have never shopped online and therefore may not be familiar with e-commerce. 

Tony Hughes, Executive Director Local Government, Civica agrees, exploring the company’s recent study, A Word from the Wise’based on research and focus groups with over 70s from across the UK. It showed that the elderly population is in fact far more tech savvy than we might think. Over half of the UK’s over 70s own a smart TV, two-thirds use a smartphone daily and 70% go online to find information. However, Hughes explains, “making small adjustments to online products and services to refine them for this audience, such as enlarging font size and simplifying website designs can be effective and can allow organisations to make the most out of the bumper sales weekend.” 

Meeting demand  

What’s more the seismic shift we have seen in the retail industry this year, means that retailers are going to need to be prepared to meet changing and heightening customer demands. That’s according to Adam Mayer, Senior Manager at Qlikwho explains “omni-channel retail is now the norm – with some making this transition in a matter of weeks as lockdowns hit. Consumers expect a seamless, effortless experience online to make up for brick and mortar stores being closed. For businesses looking to capitalise on these changes and ensure business continuity, it is integral they have a business strategy in place to spot trends ahead of any competition. This includes having an agile supply chain that grants retailers the ability to ship products within hours of purchase and offer flexible returns. To make a seamless customer experience a reality, brands must provide consistent, contextual interactions across multiple touchpoints—including social, mobile, and now voice assistants, too.” 

Hala Zeine, Chief Product Officer at Celonis, advises that AI-powered technology can be vital to ensuring the smooth running of the supply chain, by helping to “analyse the whole supply chain and flag up any potential problems early in the process. It can even automatically put contingencies in place to ensure an on-time delivery target is fulfilled. In turn, this breeds greater customer satisfaction and saves businesses money – a win-win, especially when demand and competition in the marketplace are so high.” 

Connecting with customers virtually  

With more online sales, also comes more phone calls from potentially frustrated or inquisitive customers. That’s why Neil Hammerton, CEO and Co-founder of Natterbox explains that, “one of the most important steps to take as retailers and their contact centres prepare for Black Friday, is to ensure they have the right collaboration tools in place so agents are equipped to provide the best customer experience, and that they can work effectively and productively when at home.” 

According to Stephen Harcup, Amelia, an IPsoft company, AI could be a great aid to contact centres in this sense. Harcup emphasises the correlation between excellent customer service and technology, in particular conversational AI. “Many retailers are already tapping into innovation, leveraging sophisticated AI systems work to engage with customers in new, exciting, and most importantly, helpful ways. Customers don’t like to wait in queues, they want help right away, and with anything from selection and advice with potential purchases, to sizing, availability, returns, refunds and helping with the checkout. Conversational AI is creating new digital doorways, creating a frictionless experience and ultimately new levels of customer experience.” 

An opportunistic time for cyber criminals  

But making all of these efforts to provide a satisfactory online experience for customers means nothing if they are unknowingly at risk. More online sales means more cybercriminals on the prowl than ever this year.  

As a result, David Warburton, Senior Threat Research Evangelist at F5, believes that cyber security should be a top priority for retailers, warning that, “one of the most common threats now facing online retailers is formjacking, which siphons data from online forms to an attacker-controlled location… phishing is also an enduring favourite.” 

An additional issue which is more prominent this year than ever before, is shoppers using work devices to complete online retail transactions. David Higgins, EMEA Technical Director, CyberArk explains that the “corporate laptops we use to snap up these bargains aren’t isolated devices. They are a potential gateway to more lucrative data and assets. Even a basic ransomware attack on an employee’s device via social engineering, or malicious code hidden in a website, has the potential to cause devastating damage – especially given the volume of threats has soared during the pandemic.” 

Surviving the holiday season 

Black Friday is just one more of the obstacles retailers are going to have to overcome this year. The last few months should have served a good lesson to those that didn’t already have the right technology in place, to ensure they are prepared for the busy few weeks coming up ahead. Those equipped to provide a seamless customer experience and meet demand, will be best positioned to prosper this Black Friday.