Retail Readiness: 6 Ways to Prepare for All Seasons

While consumers are still out soaking up the sun and taking advantage of end-of-summer deals, retailers have moved on to back-to-school sales and next season's merchandise trends. Now is the ideal time for retailers to take stock of e-commerce platforms and assess retail readiness for handling high-traffic periods such as the upcoming 2015 holiday season. Here are ways to provide a satisfying customer experience all year and earn brand loyalty.

Assess network health. Whether your business is brick-and-mortar or virtual, an agile, secure and flexible underlying infrastructure is the key to success in today's competitive marketplace. Retailers demand more bandwidth and faster speeds for optimizing video content, multichannel selling and delivering the mobile shopping experiences that consumers expect. 

Assessing a network's "health" and capacity through load testing is critical for success. Identify any limitations or constraints that may exist within the site. Also, determine elasticity and how your network handles unexpected traffic spikes and high volumes.

Test application performance. Equally as important is assessing the performance of the various applications that travel across a retailer's network.Applications have many dependencies and it's critical to map where they are and identify any bottlenecks.   Determine if applications are optimized and assess response times.

Assemble a dedicated "SWAT" team. Consider assembling a year-round team and project manager to assist during high traffic times, such as the holiday shopping season.  The primary mission of this team would be to identify network and application performance vulnerabilities and provide remedies for these situations. 

Ensure compliance with EMV and PCI standards. The Oct. 1 deadline for U.S.-based merchants to be EMV compliant is looming.  Use this window before the holiday season kicks off to ensure that systems are compliant and conduct testing to verify. And if additional incentive is needed, merchants who do not comply with the deadline will likely face increased liability for fraud-related costs. 

Retailers should also maintain compliance with Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (or PCI DSS). This means a daily log review, weekly file-integrity monitoring, quarterly vulnerability scanning and annual penetration testing, amongst other requirements. Consider designating an internal PCI "champion" so that compliance becomes part of daily business activities.  Finally, PCI security alone establishes a very strong security baseline, although it does not enable complete data protection, which is a good segue to my next tip.

Shore up security. Central to any retailer's success is securing its intricate IT ecosystem, which includes all point-of-sale (POS) transactions processed over its network, in addition to an estimated 12 to 15 other systems.  As we've seen in recent years, data breaches harm customers and can damage a company's brand.  Verizon's annual Data Breach Investigations Report typically finds that retailers are among the most vulnerable to cybercrime and theft.
Keep in mind that data breaches aren't always perpetrated by external bad actors. Quite often, cybercrime occurs due to the innocent mistakes and lack of oversight within a company.  To help retailers protect their customers, assets and brand, they must take stock of any vulnerabilities and implement simple security practices, such as these listed below.
  • Educate employees to recognize security breaches and help keep security measures active. Employee education is critical for recognizing telltale signs of a breach and to make sure prevention measures are working.
  • In the era of multichannel retailing, ensure that online and mobility channels are secure. Protect public-facing web assets, which are great for attracting customers, but are also magnets for cyberthieves. Ironically, the new EMV mandate will increase protection for in-store purchases by addressing counterfeit card fraud, but may have the unintended consequence of pushing more bad actors online to find vulnerabilities. For example, in countries such as Canada and Britain, where EMV was implemented several years ago, fraud attacks have been actively pushed to other channels, increasing card-not-present (CNP) fraud. Also, use mobile device management to protect in-store mobile assets that can authorize approved employee access to corporate information, encrypt data, protect against viruses, and remotely lock and wipe devices of critical corporate information.
  • Develop a bulletproof data breach response plan and conduct mock drills of cybersecurity incidents.  It's no longer good enough to address a breach once it has happened. The best prepared retailers construct data breach response plans and ensure key stakeholders are ready to respond effectively well before any breach occurs. Retailers need to have the right people in place who know their roles and responsibilities during an incident, the conditions under which an incident is escalated, who makes that decision, and how it should be made. Retailers need to not only conduct mock drills but also ensure the scenarios are timely and as complex as possible in order to best model the sorts of decisions that may be necessary. Retailers can fail or flourish based on how well they respond to a breach.
  • Frequently change administrative passwords on all point-of-sale systems.  Hackers constantly scan the Internet for guessable passwords, so change these often and diversify the characters.
Prepare for business continuity. With natural disasters such as 2012's Superstorm Sandy permanently etched in the minds of retailers, business continuity and disaster-recovery planning and implementation should top the list of priority business concerns.  It is critical to consistently monitor and test network redundancy and back-up solutions so that branch and store locations can be up and running again as quickly as possible in the event of an outage.

As with nearly anything in business, being prepared is a recipe for success, and paying attention to these tips ideally will pave the way for a positive customer experience — no matter the season.

Michele DuprÉ is vice president of Verizon Enterprise Solutions' Retail, Hospitality and Distribution vertical practices.

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