Quality assurance for retailers and grocers

Being a retailer or a grocer in the economic climate that has prevailed in the last few years has not been easy. Price pressures, burgeoning competition and increasingly informed consumers has meant that companies have to work harder, but to really get ahead and stay ahead, they have to work smarter, Maria Martin on behalf of  Original Software explains. 

In general terms, this means that from a technology and infrastructure point of view, efficiency, operating slickness, reliability and consistency are paramount. Inevitably it also means a major investment in, and focus on, the internet ecommerce channel as part of a multi-channel or omni-channel strategy. Retailers and grocers can’t afford for there to be any problems with their technology, any down time, anything that causes disruption. When things go wrong, technology problems can stop the business, upset distribution networks, bring cash earning systems crashing and cause havoc with financial or other systems. And when problems occur the fall-out can be significant – damage to corporate reputations, downward pressure on share prices, disgruntled customers and resentful staff. All this can add up to decreased market share and damage to NPS (Net Promoter Score).

Application testing and quality assurance

Staying ahead, or even just keeping up means frequent change. But when any application change is introduced it has to be seamless and as straightforward as possible – and it can’t do anything to disrupt business as usual.

This is where the issues of application testing and quality assurance (QA) come to the fore. Testing and QA are an increasingly important, but often undervalued, aspect of change. It might be change imposed from a third party platform, change driven by the business, or change that has bypassed the IT process and been implemented directly by the business. But in all cases, releasing change without proper validation will lead to disaster.

Sadly, some heads of organisations often regard it as a tick box, operational function – a costly overhead. And it can be costly – developing test plans, executing tests and supporting user acceptance testing, it’s all a time-drag on the business. It can be a significant cost, but it can be more significantly a major bottleneck to implementation and realisation of the change objectives. However, this cost is inconsequential compared to the cost of getting it wrong.

The cost of a software glitch

In October 2013, US consumers took to social media en masse to broadcast an astounding deal they found on Walmart.com. A glitch on the retail giant’s ecommerce site saw a 24 inch high-definition Viewsonic computer monitor and other products on sale for as little as US$8.85, when their retail value is in excess of US$500. Wal-Mart said it resolved the problem quickly but had to do a considerable audit of all items on its site to check there weren’t further technical errors causing price discrepancies. This hadn’t been the first time for Wal-Mart – a few weeks prior to this incident, the retailer suffered another problem where a glitch in its food stamps system enabled shoppers to load up their online shopping carts with hundreds of dollars of free items.

Website validation is a real problem for grocers and retailers on their ecommerce sites. For example, a software upgrade or patch to a system can cause anomalies within a website and not necessarily to the section that has been changed. One change of code, or even data messed up in a product manager’s spreadsheet, could have repercussions in seemingly unaffected areas of the site. In Wal-Mart’s case, it was their pricing structure.

Refusing to honour their client’s bargain purchases, this hitch had a negative impact on Wal-Mart’s reputation. Of course, this isn’t the first time a technical fault has damaged a company’s reputation, but to protect their name and their customer satisfaction levels, it’s vital that retailers – as far as they can – ensure ecommerce websites are defect free.

Technological obstacles and challenges facing today’s retailers and grocers

Retailers and grocers face all matter of technological obstacles and challenges, but the principle ones that retail clients of Original Software had identified are:

  • Upgrades and patches: When retailers and grocers have to upgrade their ERP systems or any other system within the business, the changes need to be tested to ensure that the upgrade works efficiently and effectively and hasn’t caused defects and glitches to pop up elsewhere within the system.
  • New applications: To ensure that new applications work as they should and don’t cause any domino effect problems, they need to be tested completely and accurately.
  • Website enhancements: Any technical changes within a company’s systems can have knock on effects on a company’s website (as in the case of Wal-Mart). This is important in any industry but particularly in a retail environment to consumers.
  • Integration: Integration of multiple systems (e.g. post-merger or acquisition) or integrating a new system or application is an environment where testing and QA are essential and can be time-consuming.

Manual testing is not enough

The problem is that most organisations rely on manual testing and quality assurance, meaning legions of IT and business employees or consultants, combing a company’s systems to check for any issues that the application might be causing. They need to check that the system/application is the right fit for the business (validation testing), and then check that the system/application will work for, and is understood by, the people who will ultimately use it (user acceptance testing).

This can cost the business dearly: for every 100 members of staff involved in validating a system, a business can expect to spend 5000 man-days on testing alone.

That number could easily be under-estimated for those retailers about to embark on an upgrade of their enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Oracle and SAP upgrades have become an increasingly prominent feature of the IT environment. And for these types of application, the emphasis for testing and validation falls mostly on the business users or their representatives.

Testing and industry gurus have long been promoting a ‘shift left’ message, meaning more focus on the early stages in the software delivery process – requirements, design, unit testing, test driven development etc. Now there is nothing wrong with that, but the perception that getting this right alone will resolve all quality issues is naive to say the least. ‘Shift right’ is substantially inappropriate or at least out of reach for a bought-in ERP, cloud solution or for changes made by business users via a content management solution. All phases of testing and validation need to be suitably empowered and considered for a complete approach to achieving quality, and avoiding the consequences of errors in live systems.

All retailers, whether medium sized national brands, or enormous global enterprises, have varied challenges to solve. This includes ecommerce platforms, mobile device testing, point of sale systems, supply chain and of course integration of these disparate technologies to enable a multi/omni-channel capability. In every case, Original Software has found that automation plays a significant role, but not exclusively. It is inevitable that some aspects of the testing will remain manual and those doing manual testing need support in order to be efficient and effective. But when it comes to automation, the dynamic world of retail imposes some key requirements on an appropriate solution.

Shopping for a test automation solution

So what is a good test automation solution? It would be a tool that has the potential to radically improve productivity and reduce the reliance on manual testing. However, traditional test automation tools originated in a world that moved at a much slower pace, where waterfall developments were the only game in town and no one attempted to tackle fast moving, mission-critical applications because the technology simply couldn’t keep up.

These products all get their capabilities from complex scripting languages; something that sounds good in a presentation, but has become a horror in the real world, requiring highly skilled and dedicated test automation engineers to communicate with the complex and mysterious test automation tool, essentially building another hurdle in the software delivery process.

Achieving just a moderate level of automation coverage requires considerable budget and resource. With increasing software development complexity and more and more IT departments taking on an agile approach, a traditional test automation tool has become too cumbersome for most to sustain.

By freeing test automation from the burden of a script based on code, the solution can be used by subject matter experts and not limited to the automation team, a solution that could adapt to changes in the application under test, removing the need to develop logic in addition to the validation itself.

Alan Massingham, QA Manager, Midcounties Co-operative agrees: “We’ve gone from paper and spreadsheet to an automated system. Our people no longer have to sit down in front of a screen and create test cases for each version manually. Nor do they have to reproduce errors manually because the entire session is recorded.” The result is that Midcounties Co-operative has driven down costs on QA and is able to test 50% more software than previously.


Software test automation is an essential investment for any organisation with a continuous application development program in place, and they are spoilt for choice for vendors, all of which claim to be able to automate their testing and save them large amounts of time effort and money. However, buyers beware. All software testing tools were not made equal.

There are some questions to ask your prospective vendor. Do they allow you to test, manage and secure your test data? Do you have to be a specialist programmer to use the tool? How long will it take to get automating? Can tests be easily reused? These questions and more are important to ask and will allow you to make an informed decision as to the best tool for your needs.

Colin Armitage, CEO, Original Software comments: “As a previous winner of the Grocer Gold award for ‘Technology Supplier of the Year’, Original Software would advise retailers who want to move to modern test automation, to not let their current manual testing efforts go to waste. Taking a progressive approach, a manual testing solution can record and fully document every mouse click and every submission made during a test, ready to feed your automation initiative and build this incrementally from the start.”

Armitage continues: “Retailers should make software quality a business imperative, it’s not rocket-science to understand it means safeguarding reputation by ensuring software defects don’t disrupt the business.”


Edited for web by Cecilia Rehn.