Holiday shoppers in New York.

Retail executives are no strangers to the annual “holiday freeze,” a temporary hold placed on new technology investments, security tools or IT projects in preparation for holiday shopping season. And while some industry experts say it’s a smart way to avoid “rocking the boat” during the industry’s busiest time, others argue that it makes retailers even more vulnerable to threats such as security breaches.

Regardless of which side you fall on, it’s undeniable that now, more than ever before, retailers need to be forward-thinking about their technology investments. From ensuring customer satisfaction to creating seamless shopping experiences, technology has a critical role to play in both the forward and reverse supply chain. But if you start thinking about it during peak shopping season, you’re too late.

Prepare For Record Digital Traffic

First and foremost, retailers need to over-prepare for the influx of site traffic they’ll receive throughout the winter months. Last holiday season, e-commerce accounted for a record 10.6 percent of total retail sales in the U.S., according to eMarketer. And that number is only expected to climb.

To guarantee that your site is equipped for an unprecedented number of visitors, make sure to invest in a flexible, cloud-based hosting platform. This gives retailers the option to “auto-scale” when traffic picks up — a capability that makes it easy to automatically scale the system and increase the power behind a site. Check now to see if you can take advantage of auto-scaling, and if not, make the change.

What’s more, these capabilities can’t just be in place for desktop and laptop experiences. Last year, Adobe reported that through early December, half of web traffic and 30 percent of retail sales came from mobile sites. But, mobile is just the beginning. From apps to Amazon Alexa, consumer shopping behavior is changing, and your content and backend needs to be optimized and prepared.

Ensure Your Digital Experiences Are Easy and Personal

While you’ve got a record number of people on your site, it’s important that the design is visually appealing and the layout is intuitive. Delivering a high quality user-experience — one that is not just beautiful but more importantly intuitive and easy to navigate — drives conversions. But don’t focus on design alone. Personalization technology can have a dramatic impact on sales — potentially increasing retailers’ revenues by as much as 6 percent.

This is something Amazon has mastered. Content is continuously updated and catered towards individual consumers’ wants and needs. Amazon knows what shoppers are hunting for, what they’ve considered purchasing in the past and what they may also like based on those two factors. As a result, Amazon creates a seamless and efficient digital experience for their customers — a surefire way to increase sales and keep customers happy during the notoriously busy holiday months. While the recommendations aren’t always perfect, Amazon leads the pack in offering personalization for its customers.

It’s imperative that retailers think about what personalization tools will be best for their e-commerce strategy. Retailers want to consider whether the solution will personalize shopper experiences across platforms and devices, as well as whether it can adapt to changing consumer behavior in real-time. But again, if they don’t invest in this tech today, retailers risk running into bugs at the least-opportune time. Test now and witness the payoff later.

Invest in Supply Chain Tech

The holiday shopping craze isn’t over until the last return is made. And even then, a whole lot goes on behind the scenes that requires best-of-breed supply chain technology. Just as total holiday retail sales hit $658 billion last year, nearly $70 billion worth of goods were returned. What’s more, billions of pounds of that product is sent to U.S. landfills, posing a major environmental threat. To combat this, retailers must turn to innovative reverse logistics technology as a way to streamline processes and make for a more sustainable reverse supply chain.

Beyond the inevitable returns, inventory tracking and predictive analytics can help operations at large. Inventory tracking — at the unit level — gives retailers and manufacturers thorough, real-time knowledge of their online, in-store and supply chain inventory — even allowing them to know the exact location of their goods.

At the same time, predictive technology ensures that retailers can analyze data on the fly, adjusting supply chain operations to keep up with customer and inventory trends. Kroger, for instance, has created its own analytics unit, where data is used to help predict demand and make smarter merchandising decisions.

With Black Friday right around the corner, we’ve come to the final weeks when retailers can evaluate their digital strategy and technology investments. Of course, there’s no way to know exactly how many consumers will shop on a mobile site or how many units of a particular product will be returned.

But, once retailers are in “freeze mode,” there’s no turning back. Think about what your current ecosystem of tools and solutions is capable of, and address any remaining gaps now. With the proper technology in place, it’s possible to not only deliver a cutting-edge e-commerce experience for shoppers, but also to ensure that company-wide operations and logistics are as cost-effective and successful as possible.

Jess Szmajda is chief technology officer of Optoro. To learn more about Optoro and reverse logistics, click this link.

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