Top tips for preparing retail IT systems for winter

Alan Watson, managing director at Barron McCannan, an independent IT service provider, specialising in secure installation and support of distributed IT systems. 

With one of the warmest winters on record[, the pressure on retailers to maximise sales over the winter period remains strong. Winter sales are not just condensed into the Christmas sales period, and optimising overall profits will rely on ensuring that all sales processes are fully prepared throughout the winter period. One of the most important processes is the most obvious: you need to be as ready as possible to actually take customer’s money.

Winter is the time of year when consumers are least patient, and just one customer walking away from their basket can harm a retailer’s bottom line by a lot more than the value of their aborted purchases. Making sure that all in-store systems are perfectly operational and, critically, protected from any protracted downtime, will be of central importance.

Make sure your EPOS does the job

With the increased importance of ensuring that all sales go smoothly, and the often elevated demands placed on EPOS and other technology, all retailers are strongly advised to carry out a comprehensive evaluation of their IT provisions at the start of the season. Rather than focusing only on technology which is end-of-life and or in urgent need of replacement, we suggest that retailers investigate any area in which upgrade would bring genuine financial benefit.

Working alongside a service provider can be helpful to this end, as providers with extensive experience of specific IT solutions in applications similar to your own will often be able to suggest things which you may not have considered, or warn you against acquiring a solution which seems attractive but has a track record of being problematic or unsuited to your specific demands.

Make sure you learn from last year

Looking back at the previous winter is generally the best way to form a considered plan. Work alongside your service provider to analyse the problems which previous callouts related to, determining the level of hardware failure per device per week to identify the weak points in your systems. Overlaying last year’s figures over your plan will provide a fairly reliable prediction of what to expect, though peak trading periods seem to be coming earlier each year.

With a comprehensive report to work from, ask your service provider for actionable advice: providers should be able to combine their experience of similar IT setups with the analysis of the specific demands of your organisation to give recommendations and warnings which can be applied at the store level.

Buy now, pay if it works

It can be hard to justify spend on the upgrade of devices which aren’t approaching end of life, which typically function fine day-to-day, but the benefits of upgrading business critical systems can quickly offset initial investment. If you’re acutely aware of the need for compelling evidence to justify new investment, asking a service provider to put you in touch with an organisation which makes good use of the systems you’re considering in a similar retail application can allow you to see not only that a given provision works, but also how that system might work best for you.

Some providers offer their services on a ‘payment by results’ basis. This relatively new payment system is actively promoted both in the UK Cabinet Office’s (2010-5 coalition) whitepaper “Open Public Services” and in the White House Office of Management and Budget factsheet “Paying for Success.” The principle is that the recipient of the service agrees alongside their provider the required level of result and the way in which those results will be attained, and then an independent verification of results works as the trigger for disbursement. PBR contracts allow you to invest speculatively while still protecting your bottom line: any failure to deliver results remains the responsibility of your service provider.

No EPOS left behind

Ensuring that you’re properly protected from downtime doesn’t just involve targeting devices which are as it were ‘on point.’ If your primary solutions fail, you resort to your backup and failover provisions. If your failover provisions fail, the costs of downtime can be truly eye-opening. Testing all backup and peak-only EPOS and other devices is critical, but equally it can be tempting to view a device which spends most of its time under wrap as being less in need of regular update. In an ideal situation, we might be inclined to feel, we’d never need to use the thing at all. Make sure that your safety net doesn’t break right when you need it most, and overhaul any retail IT provisions which might be sitting in the shadows.

Peak periods test capacity with enormous demand, and we strongly advise retailers to evaluate their maintenance provisions and service level agreements in advance of peak periods. In the busiest times, negotiating e.g. a two-hour fix rather than next business day agreement can make all the difference. An EPOS going down at any time is inconvenient, placing additional demands on staff and on other devices in store; during peak periods there’s a danger of alienating both potential new and existing customers.

Above all, make sure that both you and your service provider have a shared and totally unambiguous understanding of the relationship between you. Know your provider and their partners: find out the proportion of repairs which your provider carries out in house, and whether they’re an authorized warranty repairer for all of your major equipment items. Having the support of a service provider should give you confidence that your IT systems are being properly looked after, so take the time to make sure that you can have confidence in your service provider.

Learning the lessons of last year, preparing early and remaining properly supported throughout the winter should ensure that, no matter how strong last year’s profits were, you’ll in a better position than you were last autumn when the year finally turns around.