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GUEST COMMENT: Are you prepared for the Princess effect?

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by Bob Dowson

In an age where news can go viral in a matter of hours, a product that you never expected to achieve any great success can go on to become a retail phenomenon.

The ‘Princess Catherine Effect’ took Reiss by surprise at the end of May, when the Duchess of Cambridge met the Obamas in a simple £175 dress from its range. The sudden surge in internet traffic was beyond the capabilities of the retailer’s website, meaning it was unable to take full advantage of the hype – as well as potentially losing revenue from and inconveniencing hundreds of customers looking to make normal purchases.

Even those retailers who anticipate increased traffic can underestimate the popularity of a promotion. Take Amazon, for instance, which sought to entice customers to its site by offering Lady Gaga’s highly anticipated new album, Born This Way, to download for $0.99. The rush to purchase the record caused the site to slow, and left users unable to buy the album in its entirety, which in turn led hundreds to express their dissatisfaction through negative reviews – something Amazon can ill-afford when competing with the likes of iTunes.

The dangers of a website that cannot perform under pressure are serious. At the most basic level, customers who cannot access a site cannot buy, and a slowdown in the user journey will cause a comparable slowdown in revenue. But equally problematic is the question of reputation. Today’s web shoppers have a low tolerance for downtime, and even a website that runs only slightly slower than expected can quickly lose ground in the competitive online marketplace.

Being prepared is half the battle, and it is relatively straightforward to fix issues if you know about them in advance. Many of the more forward-thinking retailers now acknowledge the importance of load testing their websites throughout the year to ensure they will cope with large volumes of traffic during the periods they expect to be busy – and during those golden moments when a Princess purchases your product.

Predicted peaks can be the simplest to deal with, using historical traffic data to estimate future trends. Load testing your site helps to plan for seasonality, simulating high levels of traffic, analysing performance and making any necessary improvements before an issue rears its head.

This means that a thorough understanding both of your own event calendar and that of the retail world as a whole is a must. It is vital to flag up and carefully monitor the events that could pose problems to ensure the optimum user experience. For example, January sales and Christmas shopping will usually attract a significantly higher volume of visitors than your day-to-day experience, and a major advertising campaign or marketing promotion like Amazon’s Lady Gaga download can be the spur to a sudden surge in traffic.

It can be more difficult – if not impossible – to anticipate an uplift in usage following an unexpected PR boost, but knowing that it could happen to you is half the battle. It means that even if your business has no specific marketing plans, a load testing regime should be a necessity – whatever the size of your online offering.

It is also important to monitor your website on an ongoing basis, so that you can improve the visitor experience and ensure a steady flow of sales. That means making sure that your site is responsive, reliable and can handle large volumes of browsers at any one time. In addition, you should ensure that the site is visible, and that any third parties providing the content are equally reliable and responsive. You need to know this for a fact – not just take their word for it.

Users have little patience with websites that run consistently slowly or that redirect them at a vital stage of the process, and, if they aren’t getting the service they expect, they will simply turn to one of your competitors. Ongoing monitoring will also enable you to identify any changes in user experience and, indeed, volumes early and take measures to alert the relevant people to address potential peaks or problems early. This sort of external monitoring of your site allows you to simulate what your users go through, alerting you with useful, real-time information and helping you to improve their everyday experience as well as minimising the negative impact of exceptional circumstances that might damage your reputation and your sales.

When it comes to website performance, preparation – both for the expected and the unexpected – is crucial. The world of online retailing is more competitive than ever, and must-have items and promotions can come from nowhere. One mention from an influential Tweeter, or one picture of the latest media darling, can spark a rush to buy – great news for your profile and your profits, unless your website collapses under the weight. Learn the lessons learned the hard way by Reiss and Amazon, and make sure you know what you can handle.

Bob Dowson is director at website monitoring and load testing specialist Site Confidence.

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