Last year, the Black Friday weekend brought in $6.2bin in online sales, and this is only predicted to be a bigger figure this year. The weekend can be the make or break for retailers – so it’s important that organisations, particularly smaller ones, are prepared.

We all know how frustrating it can be when in the middle of a payment, the site freezes and you lose what’s in your cart. Site crashes, frozen payments and downtime of any kind can be detrimental both financially, and to a business’ reputation.

So, to combat this, eight IT experts have shared their advice as to how retailers can best prepare for this weekend, and make the most of the Black Friday bonanza.

Reconsider your WAN

As Cliff Duffey, president and founder of Cybera states, “Black Friday and Cyber Monday are traditionally two of the most important days of the year for retailers. And, while bargains will likely attract the attention of many consumers this holiday shopping season, the entire customer experience (CX) will truly win or lose them.”

It’s not surprising that the answer to achieving this goal lies in technology, Duffey believes, but, as he goes on to say, it isn’t always obvious which technology platform will be the best fit. “Advanced technology such as the Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality, and augmented reality are among those with the highest potential since they help retailers create digital experiences that are efficient, expedient, personalised and immersive,” Duffey continues.

“But these technologies aren’t always feasible for smaller retailers that might lack the budget and IT resources to effectively integrate them. Unfortunately, these limitations can put smaller retailers at a distinct disadvantage when competing against larger retailers and e-tailers.

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“So, what’s a smaller retailer to do?”

According to Duffey, there is one specific technology that can be a great equaliser for smaller retailers: a secure software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) platform. “SD-WAN provides any size of business with the necessary network foundation to improve flexibility and security, as well as business agility. In fact, SD-WAN is the key to accelerating business at the network and services edge, where many smaller retailers operate. The technology allows retailers to rapidly deploy new technologies without requiring advanced IT expertise, an approach that can be particularly transformative for smaller retailers.”

Additionally, Machine Learning (ML) can be used to detect intrusions by noticing a rapid increase in network traffic. Steve Moore, Chief Security Strategist at Exabeam, explains:

“Frequently during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, intrusions are detected by a notable change, such as a rapid increase in network traffic, a suspicious system login location or time, or the unusual export of sensitive information. Machine learning security approaches can make it fast and easy to find anomalous and suspicious user and device behavior. Its algorithms can baseline normal behavior in your network environment, then alert your security team whenever anomalous activity occurs.

“Prebuilt security incident timelines can display the full scope and context of related event details. This means that analysts don’t have to comb through massive amounts of raw logs to manually create a timeline as part of any investigation.

“As a result, analysts can detect breaches sooner and reduce the amount of time that attackers are ‘dwelling’ in a network environment, significantly reducing the size of a breach and its devastating impacts. With the increasing sophistication and worsening impacts of mega data breaches as the holiday season approaches, now is the time for organisations to implement smarter security management solutions.”

Prep, collect and store that data

It’s no secret how important data is in this day and age, and Black Friday weekend poses as another excuse for businesses to get excited over potential analytics. Think of how many more people will be visiting your site with the hopes of snagging a deal – and think of how much extra, beneficial data that will generate. It’s important that, firstly, retailers are prepared for this huge insurge of data.

As Krishna Subramanian, COO at Komprise points out, “last November, the Office for National Statistics said that for the first time UK online sales accounted for more than a fifth of spending, mainly thanks to the Black Friday weekend. With this huge spike in online traffic, retailers need to be confident that their websites can cope with the influx of users that are expected to browse the online sales to get their Christmas shopping sorted.

“A lot of the data served up to users is “unstructured” – such as images, descriptions, and videos. Businesses don’t want the increase in data produced to clog up users’ access to their site, so having a sophisticated, cost-effective data management solution in place is crucial to efficiently manage all this unstructured data so it does not clog up the transactions. After all, businesses don’t want to miss out on the potential profits from Black Friday because their website can’t cope.”

Secondly, it’s important that this data is fully protected at all times. Anurag Kahol, CTO at Bitglass comments, “Black Friday and Cyber Monday present a great opportunity for retailers to collect customer data that can be analysed to provide insight into buyer behaviour. However, while ramping up efforts to collect this data, it is even more important to store it safely in order to meet data privacy regulations like GDPR.

“While complying with data privacy laws can be particularly challenging for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), the demands for SMBs are still the same as larger companies and they must take full responsibility for securing their customer data. There is no excuse for negligent security practices such as leaving databases of customer information exposed. The consequence of failing to protect sensitive data can result in massive fines, not to mention the resulting damage to brand reputation.”

With this in mind, Kahol’s suggestion is that “SMBs should focus on flexible, cost-effective solutions, that can prevent data leakage; for example, cloud access security brokers (CASBs) that provide features like cloud security posture management (CSPM), data loss prevention (DLP), user and entity behaviour analytics (UEBA), and encryption of data at rest. Only with these types of capabilities can an SMB be certain that the data it is storing is truly safe.”

Lastly, in terms of data, it’s important that you make space for it in the right place. As Alan Conboy, Office of the CTO at Scale Computing points out, “Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the biggest days for retailers, yet most retailers still use the same technologies they employed a decade ago – Point-of-Sale systems, one or more servers, and some external storage.”

He goes on to suggest that, “other more innovative retailers have digitised their infrastructures with in-store Wi-Fi, security appliances, or in-store digital promotions. Many retailers still collect, send and process data over networks and off-site data centers. The challenge is that if that off-site data center experiences an outage or network failure, this will certainly lead to downtime, ultimately affecting shoppers’ experiences, whether in-store or online.”

So, Conboy’s suggested solution is: “instead of only sending and storing data in a center located hundreds of miles away that every store on the network relies on, retailers should consider the deployment of an IT solution at the edge. A hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) solution with edge computing capabilities brings a mini data center directly to each store, while still utilising the larger, off-site data center. It combines high-performance servers and storage into a single, simple to use, onsite data center that isn’t reliant on external networks, so downtime is no longer an issue. This simple, efficient way to manage IT allows retailers to capitalise on the shopping rush.”

Back Friday technology: If you get knocked down, get back up again

This year, the weekend is set to be another big retail event, so it’s important to be prepared for everything – including that dreaded downtime. Jon Lucas, Co-Director at Hyve Managed Hosting, advises that, “with so much anticipated traffic, it is important to thoroughly prepare your website or application to avoid outages, improve the digital experience and reduce shopping cart abandonment.

“The biggest mistake you could make is to underestimate the impact of a huge spike in traffic on your servers. Downtime for e-commerce websites can be detrimental to your business reputation and finances. So, scaling up your infrastructure to deal with peaks in traffic is a smart move ahead of the festive season. Alongside scaling up, retailers should be reviewing their security, performing audits and optimising key pages as well as overall site speed.”

Jeff Keyes, Director of Product Marketing at Plutora agrees with Jon, suggesting that testing is the key to success: “Think Black Friday doesn’t apply to you? Being ready for chaos and the unexpected must be part of your agility planning. For many, Black Friday represents unpredictable load on the system combined with late-breaking changes to handle special processing on the deals. Online retailers have learned by sad experience that without proper planning, they’ll miss opportunities only realized during those critical hours.”

“To prepare, all organisations should incorporate a little chaos into their software delivery pipelines to see how quickly they can react to last minute changes, unpredictable loads, and unexpected failures. Redundancy and resiliency planning in both infrastructure and processes dramatically improve the reliability, and help achieve a trustworthy customer computing experience. Invest in chaos engineering to verify your preparedness – the changes you make will impact how you architect and deliver software solutions.”

Finally, Bryan Becker, product manager at WhiteHat Security, shares a warning about being ready for any cyber threats that may be waiting for a way in: “Cybersecurity isn’t always at the top of everyone’s mind – and that means these apps can become ripe for hackers to pick off credit card and other personal information from unsuspecting shoppers.

“Before the shopping season truly gets underway, retailers and consumers should be taking proactive steps to safeguard both business and personal data throughout the holidays, and beyond. For retail businesses, that means incorporating security into the development process of their applications, to reduce the number of vulnerabilities in apps, but also to increase the remediation of vulnerabilities that have gone undetected.

“For their part, consumers must stay vigilant, and check that the apps and websites they use are encrypted. In addition, consumers can choose payment apps like Apple or Google Pay, Zelle or Venmo, to purchase items. This eliminates the risk of their personal card information being insecurely stored on an unknown vendor’s system.”

As Bryan summarises for all, “using just these few suggestions can help retailers and consumers to prioritize cybersecurity, and reduce the fear of breaches and hacks during the holidays, allowing the true spirit of the holiday season to shine through.”

Read more: Black Friday vs Cyber Monday: which is bigger?