Retail IT leaders are often met with a dilemma: the need to make changes to the existing architecture while deploying new customer experiences.
Microservices is woven throughout the cloud, digital transformation and stores. It's also a retailer's primary ingredient for the digital future and omnichannel solutions.
After struggling with debt in 2017, Cole Haan regained its growth. Now it's in the midst of going public and its tech is getting a refresh.
Right before the holidays, Cole Haan "pulled off a hat trick" with ambitious projects, said Michael Hines, VP of direct to consumer platforms at Cole Haan, while speaking at the National Retail Federation (NRF) conference in New York last week. "It worked out, I'm still here."
Cole Haan replatformed its e-commerce site, redeployed a management system for digital, and redid its warehouse during the busiest shopping season of the year.
Hines and his team are now in the "capitalization phase," or taking advantage of existing partners and investments, said Hines. Stowing away vendor technologies to later personalize and manipulate in-house was a sentiment echoed frequently at NRF, from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Target CIO Mike McNamara.
When it comes to microservices, "the first thing you think about is integrating a bunch of different disparate technologies," said Hines. With a small developer team for Cole Haan's e-commerce functions, microservices enabled the retailer to build its technology.
Hines doesn't want to overlap or overspend on existing partners with capabilities they might want to pocket for later.
When Hines is evaluating new potential vendors, his technical questions include:
Do you have microservices?
Are there layers available to us?
How robust is it?
What capabilities can we do? What capabilities will we not be able to do?
If adopted, Cole Haan reserves vendor capabilities in "our toolbox" to later put pieces together "to create value that our vendors can't create for us," said Hines.
The cloud has played a role in every integration for Cole Haan, but Hines acknowledged the fight between architecture health and new experiences is continuous.
Hines didn't have to convince non-technical leadership of microservices' role in the business. It's already "baked into the cake," they've already seen the value, he said.
The Vitamin Shoppe, by comparison, had to sell business partners on an architecture and the value it would enable, said Scott Devlin, VP of applications at The Vitamin Shoppe, while speaking on the NRF panel.
The health and wellness retailer had its growth over the years outpace its stability. In 2019, The Vitamin Shoppe revamped its foundations; it has yet to adopt microservices across its portfolio.
"As we think about more microservices and think about internet use [and] framework, we definitely want to leverage the cloud," said Devlin. But because the cloud is positioned to "accept" microservices, it should be seen as a tool "to help us get there," not the solution alone.
Turning microservices into operations
Adopting microservices and new customer experiences are packed into digital transformation. Before tackling the digital aspect of in-store shopping, Hines dives into the "psychology" of why shoppers would or would not go into a physical store.
"I'm realizing that I've become conditioned to the digital user experience," he said. The closer Cole Haan is able to take "some of the best parts" of the digital user experience in stores, including speed of interaction, the more successful the physical store becomes. "Right now, if you don’t have digital in stores, you're limited to signs and sales associates."
Cole Haan is bringing data from traditionally disparate systems into "our own containers, and manipulate that data, and make it available to our customers." The retailer is working to layer services on the "experience layer" based on information made available because of microservices, specifically around store inventory availability, said Hines.
The company's website has always had a store inventory function, but microservices enable real-time inventory across its entire fleet. "We're not making use of that right now," but Cole Haan is working on potential customer experiences it can build from the new capability, said Hines.
Stores have varying needs: location, flagship, outlets all demand modularity. Cole Haan is working through those dilemmas, like fully solving connectivity in customer-facing applications.
Ideally, microservices could simplify integrations, but not that many people have figured out how to operationalize microservices, according to Hines. For retailers, operationalizing new customer experiences is especially complicated.
"It's not just like the web where you have one store and can roll things out on a daily basis," said Hines. Stores are a different environment, "things can break over here but not over here and you're not sure why."