The 2021 holiday season will be an inflection point: As the economy starts to ramp up again while the country still grapples with the pandemic, holiday shopping will be the most digital holiday season in history by a long shot. To get a sense of the scale, FedEx CEO Fred Smith predicts that the company will deliver 100 million more packages this year than in 2019. This year won’t bring long lines on Black Friday — something that has quickly been abandoned as a result of the pandemic and online shopping — as customers complete transactions through digital channels.
But that won’t be able to happen without IT and development teams in the retail industry and the surrounding ecosystem working hard to ensure their infrastructures, bonded together by application programming interfaces (APIs), are functioning as smoothly as possible to handle the holiday demand. To do so, there are several API program best practices for these teams to follow as the holiday season approaches.
Best Practices for Preparing APIs
APIs underpin the digital economy, holding together the digital apps and systems that are central to any omnichannel strategy and ensuring that they work efficiently and securely. For any organization that sees an acceleration of business during the holiday season — retailers, logistics and transportation businesses, advertising and digital marketing, payments and banking, travel and entertainment — getting API strategies locked down and ready for the onslaught is critically important. Twenty-first-century customers expect their digital experiences to be always on and responsive, and if companies do not meet those criteria during the holiday rush, they can expect a serious hit to their bottom line.
The work must begin months before, as organizations learn from the year prior and take steps to improve experiences and operations, fine-tune systems, plug-in new data sources to enrich machine-learning algorithms, move more workloads to the cloud, and automate and experiment with new tech.
These efforts culminate in “API Tuesday” — the second Tuesday of November where an organization’s API strategy and all APIs are in place, stress tested, secured, and locked down in preparation for the upcoming holiday rush. To create a seamless shopping experience in the holiday season, there are several key things (listed below) for IT and developer teams to be aware of.
APIs are critical for building apps and connecting the organization and the network seamlessly. This requires a top-down approach. Teams must look at API design from a business point of view in order to support business models. Meanwhile, the marketing, sales, and growth-hacking teams will need to collaborate to ensure that the APIs incorporate current campaigns and sales. Simply having an API is not enough; there must be a synthesis between the business and the technology of APIs.
Application developers require a rich set of APIs from both a functionality and usability point of view to build outstanding shopping experiences. Therefore, the API providers (retailer and the ecosystem) must expose different API styles, such as request-response, events, streams, protocols like HTTP/s, gRPC, MQTT, and multiple API specifications such as OpenAPI, AsyncAPI, and GraphQL. In a nutshell, application developers are looking for a set of APIs that can support multiple standards.
API designers need to consider discoverability so that anyone with authorized access can leverage the business capabilities to deliver digital experiences and can easily find the APIs they need. This typically includes developers, data teams, and business users within the enterprise, as well as the organization’s ecosystem of partners and customers. An API store or marketplace makes it possible to promote APIs so that developers can quickly subscribe and start building shopping experiences through apps.
There are two levels of security that developers need to keep in mind: application-level security (how APIs can secure the privacy and security of transactions) and infrastructure-level security (API production must run in a secure, zero-trust environment). Security measures, such as multi-factor authentication and entitlement, come into play here. This is why APIs and identity and access management (IAM) and customer IAM (CIAM) go hand in hand.
Multiple stakeholders within the organization need to know what’s happening in their API environment to ensure proper operation. They also need extended capabilities, such as offering purchase suggestions based on historical, predicted, and real-time user data. APIs facilitate the capture of observability data, which can be used to improve customer experiences while also avoiding issues that could disrupt operations.
During the holiday season, more consumers are doing more of their shopping online, leading to bigger peak-use periods that strain the system, so developers need to protect their programs from crashing. APIs can help this by allowing for methods, such as throttling, to moderate the flow of transactions. Additionally, deploying various API-related functions across different servers can prevent customer-facing interactions from affecting the backend of the business.
Scalability, Resiliency, and Optimization
Because people are impatient and need quick responses, low latency is a highly desirable feature that APIs can provide. Meanwhile, microservices, cloud, decentralized data, and other technology strategies can help optimize the usage of APIs and provide a rich experience for end-users.
The functional and non-functional requirements discussed above can be achieved by combining various API vendors’ technologies. However, this approach introduces complexity, since businesses need to identify the correct vendor technologies, get everything set up with the correct level of interoperability, and manage the production deployment. By leveraging a complete API management platform that provides rich functional and non-functional requirements and is built on top of modern technologies, retailers can cut this complexity and shorten the time it takes to achieve API readiness.
Cross-Functional Team Alignment
DevOps plays a central role in API management ahead of and during the holiday season. However, being prepared for API Tuesday is not purely about tech infrastructure. It is also about team alignment and coordination. In the “experience economy,” customers choose where they spend their money based on the quality of the encounter. APIs are at the core of delivering digital experiences, and if a company’s API strategy is not at the top of its game, the experiences it delivers won’t be either.
That means marketing, sales, finance, operations, and IT all need to be aligned, and business users need to be trained on APIs to deliver differentiated experiences.
For organizations that missed API Tuesday this year, there’s still time to take one of the most important steps to prepare: double down on ensuring that current APIs are secure and have the proper controls in place to protect against any unauthorized access. Hackers see APIs as storefronts for valuable data, and they’re ready to do some unauthorized “shopping” of their own. Then, as soon as the holiday season is over, immediately put a month-by-month plan in place to be ready for next year’s API Tuesday.