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In recent years, retail innovation has extended far beyond automated checkouts. Rather than just enabling sales in-store, tills have become an integral component of retailers’ enterprise-wide commerce platforms.

Now the universal cart is integrating the sales platform even more closely with elements including the supply chain, product experience and customer-centred personalisation – effectively weaving B2C, B2B and marketplaces into a single end-to-end customer journey.

It’s a great example of successful industry innovation. But for retailers it can be double-edged. Why? On the upside, they can now deliver a consistent yet individually-tailored customer experience across all sales channels, boosting conversion rates. But, less positively, they have to operate an entire new technical ecosystem with zero fault tolerance. And while a deeply connected ecosystem can produce excellent business outcomes, a single glitch can ultimately take the whole environment down. 

The key pain point: payments

In the past few months this downside has become all too clear, as several prominent retailers have found themselves grappling with major software and system challenges. The results have ranged from temporary store closures to order cancellations to losses running to millions of pounds – not to mention severe reputational damage and loss of customer trust.

The impacts have been felt most acutely in the processing of payments – with some retailers finding themselves unable to accept contactless payments, which in 2023 accounted for 93.4% of all in-store card transactions up to £100. As well as inconveniencing and alienating customers, the payments outages have attracted the attention of the Payments Systems Regulator (PSR), which has the option of escalating any issues it finds in the payment infrastructure to the Bank of England for remedial action.

Issues with upgrades and providers

So, what’s behind retailers’ problems with payments processing? A closer look reveals two main drivers. First, unexpected issues have sometimes arisen following overnight upgrades of payments software. In many cases, the botched upgrades have exposed glaring deficiencies in retailers’ release management processes, underscoring the critical need for rigorous testing and deployment procedures – while also highlighting the pivotal role that payments systems and infrastructures now play in sustaining retailers’ operations.

The second common cause is technical challenges with the payment providers’ systems. This can be particularly impactful if many retailers rely on similar solutions, potentially affecting several retailers simultaneously. In some instances, upgrades to the providers’ core processing systems have proved incompatible with the software running at the retailers, while in others extended downtime within the payment providers have caused processing delays or failures. But whatever the trigger, the effect on retailers is catastrophic.

Steps to take

So, given the challenges we’ve described, what should retailers be doing now to ensure their payments infrastructure is robust and resilient – and that it will continue to meet both their own needs and also those of customers? In our view, they need to take steps focused on two areas.

Step 1: Invest in modern payment solutions to address vulnerabilities and pain points

To avoid future disruptions, it’s vital for retailers invest in modernising their payments infrastructure and processes. This involves conducting an assessment to identify any vulnerabilities in their current payments landscape, and then acting to address these – potentially by transitioning from outdated legacy systems to more advanced technology solutions. The improved stability, scalability, security and agility offered by modern payments systems mean they’re better able to handle both increasing transaction volumes and evolving customer demands. For retailers looking to realise these benefits, the options include collaborating directly with payments providers to improve integration and communication; engaging with payments orchestrators to collaborate with multiple payment providers at once; and creating their own orchestration layers, enabling them to switch dynamically between different providers.

Step 2: Expanding payment options to coexist with existing capabilities 

In November 2023, HM Treasury published its Future of Payments Review, providing an overview of the UK’s current payments landscape together with recommendations to enhance competition and innovation. Key themes included the UK’s heavy reliance on card payments, the need for digital alternatives to cards, and the potential of open banking as a way for retailers to seamlessly integrate account-to-account payments. The overall implication? With over 350 payment methods now available worldwide, retailers should look to broaden their horizons and consider alternative options, such as implementing QR code readers or softPoS mobile payments technology. Diversifying payment capabilities in these ways and more not only provides retailers with greater flexibility, but also future-proofs them against potential disruptions.

Time to build resilience and trust

As retailers’ recent IT issues have underlined, there’s an urgent need to act now – and ensure that when the unexpected happens, they’re ready and able to handle it. Ultimately, consumer trust is paramount in retail. And the key to building and retaining that trust? Demonstrating a rock-solid commitment to providing a world-class customer experience – including payments.

Cognizant UK & Ireland
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