As retailers prepare for the onslaught of online and in-store shoppers this holiday season, so much relies on their IT infrastructures. Most U.S. retailers count on nearly 70 percent of their annual sales to come solely from the last three months of the year, leaving little or no room for mistakes.  And the NRF expects holiday retail sales in November and December to increase between 3.6 and 4 percent for a total of $678.75 billion to $682 billion.

So there’s little or almost no room for network outages or security breaches this holiday season. Several leading IT professionals shared their insights and tips as Black Friday and Cyber Monday (News - Alert) come to a close.

Importance of avoiding downtime

“Last year, during the five days after Thanksgiving, some of the biggest names in retail experienced outages due to system overloads from high traffic. Several reports estimate that these outages equated to billions in lost revenue,” said Rob Strechay, Zerto product senior vice president. “These kinds of numbers can make or break a quarter, if not an entire brand. Many retailers are overlooking that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure! Cloud must be part of the proactive plan to address this.”

“Retailers need their applications and services to be running at 100 percent efficiency 24x7,” said Tintri Field CTO Chris Colotti. “Downtime and outages must be avoided at all costs. But should an issue occur, retailers need to understand the impact to revenue and reputation. How much downtime can each application afford before it impacts the bottom line or seriously impacts customers? The agility and flexibility of the cloud model is attractive, but you cannot afford to ignore time-to-recovery as a key metric in your IT strategy. To avoid outages and ensure continuous uptime, retailers need to be able to scale quickly, plan out their capacity, and underpin this with a multi cloud strategy.”

“Network downtime can bring consequences that last far longer than the outage itself,” said Ian Pennell, Cradlepoint chief product officer. “According to Gartner (News - Alert), every minute of Internet downtime costs retailers an average of $5,600. Customers may walk away from potential purchases when they see long lines or realize their credit card transactions will not be processed.

The impact of a network outage on a company’s brand can be significant, particularly in the face of the ‘always on’ ecommerce competition. Perhaps the most frustrating fact is that losses associated with a loss of connectivity can be avoided with proactive planning.  Reliable failover systems can be implemented to ensure business continuity when a network goes down, so that sales will not be lost, and customers stay happy amid the hustle and bustle of the season."

Understanding the risks

WhereScape CEO Mark Budzinski offered, “Each year retailers get smarter about targeting potential customers. By analyzing the shopping patterns from previous holiday season, retailers are able to continually fine-tune advertising channels and offer even more impactful discounts for Black Friday (News - Alert) and Cyber Monday. Enterprise data warehouses and big data strategy powered by automation software speed up the design, development, deployment and operation of data infrastructure to deliver insightful data to retail leaders faster. With fierce competition to capitalize on the holiday shopping season, increasing the speed and depth of reliable and actionable data for retailers can provide the edge needed to optimally maximize the supply chain and stock control to capture opportunity."

Hackers know that during the rush of the holidays, shoppers, store IT teams and in-store staff are stretched thin, making them highly vulnerable to attacks. This creates an environment ripe for Ransomware attacks.

Gary Watson, CTO and co-founder of Nexsan said, “With Ransomware attacks on the rise, and all this new, critical data coming into their systems so quickly, it’s a necessity for companies to have measures in place in case an attack does make its way through. Retailers need to be prepared to be able to recover crucial data as quickly as possible, without having to pay a potential ransom; not only to keep important data safe, but to also keep operations running business as usual during the most important sales week of the year.  It’s imperative for retailers to take measures to arm themselves with a second line of defense that protects data from corruption and deletion, minimizing the impact of these malicious cyber attacks.”

And then there’s the threat of downtime caused by the mundane day-to-day work, including scheduled updates.

“Software releases are the single biggest factor contributing to downtime across all industries, and if retailers experience a glitch during the shopping frenzy, the total dollar loss could easily hit seven figures. And the reputational damage could increase this number drastically,” said Plutora CMO Bob Davis. “To significantly decrease the chances of being caught out by a glitch, retailers should implement a solid continuous delivery management plan to be confident that their software and applications will run smoothly no matter the iteration.”

As retailers plan for next year, many will evaluate a consolidation of hardware and software. Hyperconverged platforms might well be on their next holiday wish list.

Jason Collier, Co-Founder, Scale Computing:

The distributed nature of retail companies means the individual stores have minimal or no IT staff, but often the same IT needs as the central office,” said Jason Collier, co-founder of Scale Computing. “By deploying flexible virtualized systems such as hyperconverged infrastructures at the edge, retailers can quickly scale capacity and computing power at its stores while allowing their home office IT team to remotely manage them through a simple web interface.”

While customers might remember the best deals of the season, they’ll also remember their worst retail experiences. The impression retailers leave with buyers this year will affect their decisions on where to buy next year. IT will play a vital role in keeping shoppers happy and loyal for the months in between.