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GUEST COMMENT Five best practices to ensure online readiness for Christmas

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The 2013 Christmas shopping season saw consumers flock to retailers’ websites at an all-time record breaking rate. Experian reported that in the UK, Boxing Day (26th December) became the biggest day in British retail history with 129 million visits to retail websites. This was 8% bigger than any previous online shopping day, and a 40.4% increase in online sales compared to the same day in 2012.(1) Similar records were shattered across Europe throughout December and January.

Meanwhile, huge growth was seen in mobile commerce, with one in eight EU Christmas sales coming from mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablets. This represented a 68% year-over-year increase and cemented Europe as the fastest growing region for mobile shopping, ahead of the US and the emerging Asian markets.(2)

As you would expect, growth markets attract newcomers and encourage business expansion into new regions. This increased competition and globalisation gives customers more choice and buying power than ever before, which may explain why brand loyalty is at an all-time low, with 60% of ecommerce customers stating they would easily switch between brands.(3)

With 2014 Christmas sales expected to be bigger than ever, retailers need to ensure they are ready to seize the e-commerce opportunity, differentiate themselves from competitors, attract shoppers to their web and mobile apps, deliver experiences that will result in a purchase, and keep them coming back. With a very short window from season to season, retailers have to make sure they deliver on these promises. Here are some best practices that will help vendors and their web sites brace for what will most certainly be another festive shopping season:

Understand how shoppers are accessing your webpage and adopt the customer’s perspective

Do you know how your customers are getting to your site? What is driving traffic that converts? What devices and what network types are they using? Which platforms and browsers are enabling them? You cannot deliver great experiences if you haven’t analysed the various paths site visitors take to your site Once you know how shoppers get to you, imagine the experience from their end of the transaction. Consider what the end-user experience looks like and consider how that experience relates to the competition or other Internet leaders. In addition, a simple truth remains — you can’t optimise what you can’t measure. Gain visibility into end-user experiences by tapping into tools like Real User Monitoring (RUM). With the intelligence gained, you can better optimise your applications and fine-tune them for performance.

Optimise the in-store network infrastructure

Brick-and-mortar networks often leave something to be desired. With their high latency and low bandwidth, they can have a significant impact on in-store web performance, which impacts shoppers’ abilities to compare prices and read reviews — and limits overall connectivity and sharing functionality. What’s causing these slowdowns? For the most part, it’s the network architecture and the type of connectivity available in the store locations. Customers will shop and browse on their own devices and at kiosks or on tablets used by your employees. These channels are all part of your brand experience, so don’t leave shoppers, or employees for that matter, feeling frustrated with their in-store mobile visit.

Make it blazing fast

Don’t make your shoppers wait. Deliver fast, web and app experiences across all traffic conditions and end-user situations. Start by getting content as close to your end-users as possible. The closer the content, the faster it will be. For content that can only reside at origin — whether that is your own data centre or a cloud provider — ensure that you can accelerate communication between your origin and client. Lastly, look at the application components and see if you can reduce the number of network requests made, the number of bytes delivered, and focus on perceived performance. In other words: how a site can be optimised to accelerate rendering in the browser and hence feel faster to an end-user.

Plan for failure

Work with your teams to run site load tests to ensure you can handle peak holiday traffic. In addition, be aware that peak Christmas traffic is nothing compared to the amount of traffic that an attacker can direct at your web site in order to knock it offline. To prepare yourself for this type of attack (called a Distributed Denial of Service attack) consider traffic and request an update from your network infrastructure team regarding DDoS attack mitigation capacity. Consider upgrading your network firewall hardware, or look into a cloud-based web security solution able to defend against the largest attacks.

Keep it secure

Web attackers also will try to capitalise on peak holiday traffic to sneak past web application firewalls in order to steal customer data or merchandise. Now is a good time to ensure that your web application firewall rules are up-to-date. Also consider running a scan of your web site to check for new vulnerabilities, and consider analysing your false positive rates to ensure that your firewall rules are not denying legitimate users access to your site. Online retailers continue to face a complex selling environment that is constantly evolving to adapt to customers’ wants and needs.

Nothing that we have suggested here is difficult to implement or achieve, but putting in place the right resources and preparation will ensure that you maximise your opportunities for a safe and profitable Christmas shopping season in 2014.

Enrique Duvos, director, product marketing and enablement, Akamai Technologies

(1) Experian Hitwise

(2) Adobe Online Shopping Forecast

(3) European B2C E-commerce Report 2014, E-commerce Europe

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