COVID-19 turned the retail world on its head. In a matter of weeks, many diehard store shoppers became online or omnichannel shopping loyalists, avoiding the aisles of physical stores like the plague—or, in this case, like the coronavirus.
This left many major retail chains that were running their ecommerce systems on older legacy software platforms in a bind. They wanted to add such omnichannel capabilities as in-store pickup, curbside, returns of online orders in stores and digital receipts—and fast—but in many cases were tied to older systems that required ample time, money and manpower to change.
Executives from Toshiba Inc.’s Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions unit say they saw this first-hand as the pandemic transformed the way consumers shopped.
“The challenge we were seeing was that stores needed to innovate and keep up with market demands, and COVID accelerated the need for innovations in things like curbside, contactless and returns,” says Fredrik Carlegren, vice president of marketing for Toshiba’s Global Commerce Solutions division, which sells retail store software. But monolithic platforms and their IT constraints kept retailers from quickly pivoting to add these much-needed services quickly, he says.
What are monolithic ecommerce platforms?
Monolithic ecommerce platforms—also often called legacy platforms—are typically older ecommerce platforms where the front-end and back-end systems are tightly intertwined. To add a new feature or customize these systems, for example to add BOPIS, a retailer must manipulate the underlying codebase. This can be expensive, time-consuming and make the platform more complex and fragile over time.
When retailers begin manipulating code, it can become a slippery slope, impacting other areas of a platform. Because all the parts of a monolithic platform are connected, if one part goes awry, it can create a domino effect. Constantly customizing a monolithic platform can impact things like site speed, the way pages are displayed and produce other unintended consequences.
“Legacy systems make it painful to do multichannel and omnichannel,” says Yevgeni Tsirulnik, vice president of digital platform innovation for Toshiba’s Global Commerce Solutions division.
“Those retailers that hadn’t already embarked on this journey, couldn’t pivot quickly [when COVID hit],” he says. That was a boon for companies like Instacart, which many retailers used to implement BOPIS and same-day delivery quickly, he says.
Toshiba, which has been working in the store retail technology space since 1970 and works with such merchants as Hugo Boss, CVS Caremark Corp. (No. 116 in the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000), Walgreens Boots Alliance (No. 30) and The Kroger Co (No. 13), this week launched a new commerce software called Elera (derived from acc-elera-te) that is designed to help merchants circumvent their monolithic ecommerce platforms and add new features without having to replatform. The commerce software is based on a microservices architecture. Mainly for retailers with stores, it aims to help bridge the divide between physical stores and ecommerce.
What are microservices?
Microservices are individual components or independent services that can be swapped out with ease to help keep a business current, more agile and able to deploy faster. A microservice can be any application or feature, such as a mobile curbside pickup application, and it will use an application programming interface (API) as a calling card of sorts to connect with and pull data from a separate application, such as a consumer’s online order history in a legacy ecommerce platform. Each microservice has its own API. The API sits in front of the microservice and is the bridge for communication between applications. This microservices approach typically enables businesses to be more agile and constantly iterate to better serve shoppers.
Using microservices, Elera, Toshiba says, enables retailers to roll out new services within days, then independently test, improve, update, and scale them, or even scrap them, without disrupting or replacing legacy systems.
Elera comes with 30 pre-packaged microservices and 400 APIs that can connect to any legacy, monolithic ecommerce platform, Toshiba says. That can help retailers do things like quickly begin accepting returns of online orders in stores, better predict inventory needs, adjust pricing based on insights across the store and web and offer curbside pickup, all without touching the legacy ecommerce platform codebase. It also can help retailers connect shopper behavior across stores and the web to help merchants personalize the shopping experience across channels.
Elera also helps retailers get better insights into shoppers in stores. Stores can connect Elera to Internet of Things sensors and computer-vision cameras to collect data and implement technologies such as motion-tracking systems to determine the store setup that will drive the most sales.
Toshiba won’t name any retailers using Elera but says it has been implemented by several high-volume grocery and general merchandise stores. Tsirulnik says one retailer has already used Elera to cut down on self-checkout scams. With COVID-19, more consumers have been using self-checkout to avoid human interaction. For one retailer, that led to shoppers scamming the system, Tsirulnik says. For example, a shopper might place a pound of filet mignon on a scale but enter the pricing code for bananas. Using Elera the retailer implemented a microservice—a camera that could detect what was on the scale—so that shoppers were charged for the correct product.
27% of retailers looking to implement new ecommerce platforms say they are most strongly considering a microservices-based platform, the second most popular answer behind software-as-a-service, according to a Digital Commerce 360 survey of 121 retailers conducted in August and September.