A Google Cloud retail exec explains how the pandemic helped the company prepare for peak holiday traffic as it nabs retail customers to take on Amazon and Microsoft

  • Google Cloud has won over customers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, Wayfair, and Etsy as part of its major push into the retail industry.
  • Google Cloud is helping those customers deal with a huge surge in holiday website and app traffic by using everything it's learned in the pandemic, says Carrie Tharp, vice president of retail and consumer at Google Cloud.
  • Earlier this year, Google Cloud enacted its Black Friday and Cyber Monday protocols months ahead of schedule as the pandemic saw a surge in online traffic to retailers.
  • Those protocols involved enacting a freeze on new features being added to its cloud to better ensure stability, even as it scrambled to add capacity.
  • Market research firm Canalys recently praised Google Cloud as the leading cloud platform for the retail industry, owing to the fact that some retailers may not want to work with Amazon Web Services, the dominant cloud platform, because it's owned by the online retail giant.
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The holiday shopping season is always crunch time for retailers, as bargain-seekers crush their websites with huge amounts of traffic.

But Google Cloud says that things went more smoothly this year for the retailers hosting their apps and sites on its platform — including flagship customers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, Wayfair, and Etsy — thanks to lessons learned earlier on the pandemic.

"Our goal right now for this year has been a hyperfocus on supporting all of retail through COVID," says Carrie Tharp, vice president of retail and consumer at Google Cloud.

For example, Google Cloud has long employed special protocols for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, giving employees a playbook for making sure the platform maintains a high level of reliability amid all the hubbub. 

Those protocols involve a code freeze — meaning that developers stop adding new features, such that the system is more stable. It also involves forecasting, with Google Cloud taking a close look at all its data centers around the world and procuring more capacity as needed. The company actually activated those protocols right at the beginning of the pandemic, Tharp says, as customers embraced online shopping and stayed away from physical stores.

Read more: A market research firm says Google Cloud is now the leading cloud in the retail industry, partially because retailers don't want to work with Amazon Web Services

Enacting those protocols early proved to be a valuable exercise in helping its own retail customers prepare for Black Friday this year, with Google Cloud walking those customers through the process of assessing their capacity and helping them scale up as necessary. 

"We've been really focused on all our resources, being responsive to customer needs, ramping up and down, and really preparing for what next year looks like," Tharp said. "We have continued to invest in retail solutions."

This is an important point for Google Cloud, which is targeting the retail industry as a key part of its strategy to catch up with leading cloud providers Amazon Web Services and Microsoft. Right now, Google Cloud has a sales organization and products specifically for its largest retail accounts. 

Market research firm Canalys called Google Cloud the leading cloud for retail earlier this year: Beyond its core cloud services, Google offers developers access to products like Google Pay and Google Maps, which are advantages that are difficult for its competitors to match. And on a strategic level, some retailers are wary of working with a competitor like Amazon. 

In the coming year, Google Cloud plans to continue building forecasting tools and other capabilities to help retailers next year. It also plans to incorporate Google search into its retail products.

"All retailers have a continuous need to improve margin so they can put more of their time, talent and resources into innovating our customer experience," Tharp said. 

The stakes are high for retailers

The stakes are high, too, with the demand for e-commerce skyrocketing this year: 17% of respondents said they had an outage in 2020, compared to 10% last year, according to a survey of 1,116 retail executives (not all of whom are cloud customers) conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of Google. 

The pandemic has changed how people shop and retailers sell as well. Retail executives say curbside pickup will rise by 37% on average, compared to the holidays last year, while services for ordering online for pickup will grow 39% on average, the Harris Poll survey said. Also, 62% of retail executives say they've increased the use of technology for logistics planning, according to the same survey.

On the flip side, about three-quarters of retail executives say their website has previously experienced an outage during peak holiday traffic, the survey said — proving a need for their IT to keep up with demand.

"That exposed a lot of cracks in the process for a lot of the retailers," Tharp says.

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