The retail world is busy gearing up for the Christmas rush – whether it’s Black Friday, Cyber Monday or just the general increase in activity in the run-up to the festive season. However, every year some retailers get caught out. And every year some retailers leave it too late to prepare their website.
Brilliantly executed ad campaigns become counter-productive as websites collapse or become unusable under the weight of bargain-hungry visitors. IT systems that had until now been taken for granted suddenly become the focus of attention – the weakest link in the Black Friday chain. The result: revenue and reputation both suffer as top brands hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
So how do you make sure this doesn’t happen to you? What do you need to consider to make sure your website is best placed to make the most of the inevitable Christmas rush?
1. Forecast – but beware of relying too heavily on last year’s figures
As much as you try to extrapolate from what happened in previous years, no one can predict the future with absolute accuracy. And sometimes extrapolation just doesn’t work. Perhaps you’re running your first ever TV campaign, and you have no past results to go on.
Also, remember that analytics from previous years won’t always tell the whole story. If your website ran into problems last year, for example, you might not have captured the true number of visits or attempted visits.
Nevertheless, it’s important to have at least some kind of estimate in place – and to plan for numbers well in excess of the upper limit of that estimate.
How will your website behave under load? When will it start slowing down? How much will it slow down? When will it break?
Load testing your website means subjecting it to increased levels of traffic under controlled conditions and measuring the effects. This will help you answer these questions but it’s worth noting that this also comes with its own set of challenges. For example, you need to give yourself plenty of time to make changes such as introducing more capacity if necessary. Therefore, you need to have a website that’s ready to test well in advance.
This is as much a management challenge as a technical one, not least because those responsible for keeping the website up and running will have to work closely with the people planning and designing seasonal promotions.
3. Audit third parties
You would be hard pressed to find a retail website that doesn’t rely on one or more third-party services, carrying out functions such as feature detection, remarketing and analytics. And your Black Friday is their Black Friday too. That means their performance doesn’t just depend on variations in your traffic, but also on traffic patterns of countless other websites, including your competitors.
To some extent, you have to trust that they will have carried out their own planning and testing. But there are also steps you can take to mitigate the risk. So, as far as you can, try to eliminate third-party single points of failure on your website. This is easier for some services than it is for others, but a thorough audit of the third-party content on your website will help you assess the dangers and work around them.
4. Make it fast
Faster retail sites tend to make more money. So having a fast website or, at the very least one that doesn’t slow down at peak times, is particularly important. There’s also a knock-on benefit in that many of the techniques used to make sites load faster will make them less liable to fail under load.
Simple steps to make your website faster and more resilient include:
• Making good use of browser caching. If you give static files that don’t change very often long cache lifetimes, more visitors will be able to load them directly from their browser cache and not from you. This means that a) those resources will load more quickly for those visitors and b) there will be less pressure on your systems.
• Reducing page size. Smaller web pages normally load faster than big ones. Cutting page sizes by optimising images, minifying text files and removing redundant content should help make your website both faster and better able to stand up to greater volumes of traffic. While this is easy to do in principle, retail sites often do precisely the opposite, with large, poorly optimised Black Friday ads adding unnecessarily to page weight.
• Using a content delivery network (CDN). CDNs can make your website faster by effectively delivering a copy of it closer to the end user. They also make it more resilient for the same reason – if visitors are downloading copies of your site from various locations, it means your own systems have less work to do at busy times.
The graph below illustrates what happened to one major retailer’s homepage in the run-up to Christmas 2015 (figures from NCC Group’s performance monitoring service). Page size increased, thanks to some big images in seasonal ads, and this coincided with a noticeable slowdown.
5. Set up contingencies
Even if you do everything right, things can still go wrong.
It’s therefore important to have contingencies in place. For example, you might arrange for a queuing system to handle traffic when your own systems can’t cope.
You also need to consider non-technical contingencies, such as whether you’ll be able to draw on extra call centre staff at short notice or how your PR department will react in the event of a big outage. Who will be available for interviews? Who will brief them? What will they say?
Hopefully, through early preparation combined with careful planning, testing and optimisation, you’ll be perfectly placed to avoid crisis PR and to reap the rewards of a highly effective retail site over the busy Black Friday period.
Alex Painter is a web performance consultant at NCC Group