Tech industry experts explore the challenges of Black Friday 2020

With Black Friday fast approaching on 27th November, it may be one of the only events of 2020 that goes ahead as close to normal as we know it—albeit entirely digitally.

With the UK currently in a nationwide lockdown, there will be no crowds of shoppers on the high-street, with retailers instead preparing for an expected surge in online sales. This presents a range of challenges, especially for those that are newer to the online scene. From cybersecurity, managing an increase in site traffic and maintaining high standards of customer service without face to face interaction, there’s a lot that these brands need to consider. 

So, how can retailers look to ensure they maintain business as usual during these uncertain times and make the most of the upcoming peak season?

Embedding cyber security into Black Friday

As more consumers turn to online shopping than ever before this year, they will be using retailers’ digital platforms, entering payment information, and clicking on promotional email links. All making for an extremely opportunistic time for cyber criminals. 

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.”

Max Heinemeyer, Director of Threat Hunting at Darktrace also explains that “cyber criminals are increasingly opting to launch their attacks at night or on weekends – when response times of security teams will be slowest.” Max agrees that, if the retail sector is to benefit from strong sales, it must prioritise cyber security, and this can be aided by artificial intelligence (AI), which he explains “is already a crucial ally for the retail sector across the world.”

With cyber criminals out and on the loose, Warburton advises consumers that they should “proceed with caution when the sales happen… Phishers often send convincing emails asking for personal or financial information – something brands would not normally do.”

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.”

Keeping up with a seismic market shift

Adam Mayer, Senior Manager at Qlik, believes, it is impossible to ignore the seismic shift in the retail industry that has taken place this year. He 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.”

This kind of technology will be especially vital as Nicky Tozer, VP EMEA at Oracle NetSuite, suggest that, “the pandemic has encouraged a deep introspection on how consumer expectations, purchasing patterns and priorities are speeding up a shift to online-first, direct-to-consumer (D2C) retail strategies.

“There is no question that it’s a challenging time; 2019 saw retail sales fall for the first time in 25 years, and that was before coronavirus. But brands can still succeed in the evolving retail landscape by keeping up to date with current customers’ preferences, learning from their D2C counterparts and by cultivating a loyal customer base. They no longer need to rely solely on others to market and sell their products. Instead, they can look inward and focus on what they can control. D2C offers a tremendous opportunity for retailers that can both drive revenue in the near-term and become critical to their long-term success.”

Customer service in the Covid-19 era

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.

Making up for a lack of face-to-face contact 

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.”

A new demographic

But customer expectations are different depending on the demographic, and with no one currently able to visit retailers in-store, it isn’t just younger customers that retailers should be prepared to serve online. This is because research has shown we can expect to see an influx in silver surfers online shopping. Gupta believes that “what sometimes gets overlooked, is experience and accessibility for every shopper. 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.”

Where next?

Making the most of this year’s Black Friday as a huge sales opportunity is going to be a bigger challenge than ever before. But, if retailers have the right technology in place to ensure they are cyber secure and can meet the expectations of all of their online customers, they will be in the best position they can be to prosper during this sales event.