The Retail Transformation Blog

Advice and insight to help retailers thrive in the new age of retail.

Return to blog index

How can retailers deliver technology change more quickly?

Since the introduction of ecommerce and the recent growth in the use of mobile and tablet devices, one challenge for the retail industry still remains: How can retailers deliver technology change more quickly?

One of the solutions to this challenge is through the use of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). An API is simply the means for one computer to talk to another and exchange data in a structured format. The data can be sent over an internal network or over the Internet, and well-designed systems can manage millions of data requests per day.

In practice, APIs give systems the ability to make data (e.g. product data) and services (e.g. add to basket or get order status) available to other systems in a standard format.

Developers can rely on APIs to return data in a structured and consistent format. Security and scalability can easily be built in and therefore avoid the need to build duplicate function or point-to-point systems interfaces. This can dramatically speed up development of a new business function.

APIs have been used for nearly a decade and are now found all over the web. One of the most commonly used APIs is provided by Google Maps. Many store locators use the Google Maps API to display the map and information about stores and enable customers to calculate driving directions.

How are retailers using APIs?

The most common areas where APIs are built for external use by retailers are product, customer and stock. These core APIs allow retailers to provide consistent product information to external partners (e.g. marketing agencies for microsites) or internally for ecommerce through Smartphone apps (e.g. iOS, Android).

In the UK, the ASOS mobile application for iPhone and Android uses APIs instead of creating bespoke links to the main website. Because APIs give developers a standard way to interact with the ecommerce platform (e.g. show product, add to basket) the effort required to deliver the app on a different platform is reduced. Developers can then focus their time on features that are platform-specific to provide the customer with the best possible user experience.

Argos is another good example of a company using APIs to support its business. Initially APIs were set up to support the development of mobile applications, but this work has been extended so that APIs are also used to power in-store devices.

Best Buy in the USA is a good example of a retailer providing APIs to external partners. Citibank allows their customers to redeem loyalty points by purchasing Best Buy items. Citibank displays the items on its own website by calling the Best Buy product API for product information and the inventory and store APIs to find stores from which the customer could pick them up. If another company wanted to run a similar loyalty programme, all Best Buy has to do is give them access to the APIs and the associated documentation and their part of the work is complete.

The Best Buy API programme has been running for a number of years and includes APIs for category and product search and for product ratings and reviews.

What are the first steps?

The best way for retailers to start is to consider the future technology roadmap for the business (e.g. for mobile, in-store digital and external partners). It may be that some of these ideas will benefit from having standard APIs to allow faster, more agile development and to be able to pilot new initiatives rapidly.

In most cases, it is a good idea to start in a small, simple area, rather than trying to develop an API for every area of business. By using this pilot approach, the principle can be proven before extending development to more complex or peripheral areas.

Many organisations start with a product API and provide this to an external partner to show content on affiliate sites. It is simple to do and requires minimal effort, but provides useful insight.

To read the full report DOWNLOAD White Paper: Accelerating ecommerce systems development using APIs.