Best practices as you plan ahead for the peak seasons in online retail

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As we wave goodbye to the winter shopping season, now, is the time for retailers to optimise and prepare for certain growth in eCommerce and mCommerce activity.

While no retailer’s experience is identical to another’s, there are a number of trends and best practices that we have observed across our own customer base in Europe that will benefit e-tailers from all regions, ensuring  fast, reliable and secure user experiences across all devices.

Traffic numbers continue to increase: Ensure fast and reliable user experiences.

Even given that the Christmas sales period is always busy, the 2014/15 festive season generated noticeably high online traffic peaks across Europe. This highlights the need for retailers to understand their website capacities and vulnerabilities. Utilising load testing to simulate realistic seasonal traffic, and revealing the website’s breaking points under heightened traffic volumes can help to avoid glitches in real user scenarios. The key here is to analyse yearly traffic growth and peaks, and test systems against these numbers to ensure sites won’t buckle under the added (and positive) activity during the busiest months. When testing, it is important to consider modelling traffic load as accurately as you can, including 3rd party content and plugins. This also means testing a full end-to-end purchasing transaction, right up to and including the payment gateway if possible.

Once retailers know they can handle capacity demands, there are three key ways to ensure speedy and safe content delivery to consumers. First, get content closer to end users by bringing it closer to the edge of the network for faster delivery to the end users. Secondly, apply network based optimisations to accelerate requests to the data centre or cloud provider. Finally, optimise the website to be as lean as possible. Serving unnecessary bytes hurts performance and this will be amplified during peak periods. In addition to traditional optimisation techniques  retailers should also take advantage of content and object pre-fetching. They can designate the pages that users are most likely to visit next and cache non-personalised content to minimise round trips, enabling browsers to load and render an application faster. Some sites even go as far as having a separate, lightweight website for sale periods only.

Sales peaks are growing longer: Prepare and start sales earlier to take advantage.

Traffic peaked throughout Europe in early November 2014, and Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the shopping days in-between have become increasingly popular. European Black Friday peak retail traffic grew by 280 percent over its October 2014 baseline traffic levels, and 360 percent over its 2013 average traffic. Meanwhile, traditional shopping during January’s winter sales proved equally buoyant. Retailers should open the sales “floodgates” early and keep them open later to reap the rewards of this longer shopping season.

With an elongated shopping season and several high-trafficked shopping days, retailers should communicate with their eCommerce partners to develop a plan that encompasses all anticipated holiday traffic and the potential threat it presents. And, regardless of any rigorous preparation that may occur in advance of the busy season, retailers should always have a backup plan in place.

That backup plan should include tools like Shopper Prioritisation, which allows retailers to place shoppers in a queue if back-end services are becoming overloaded. When implementing these solutions, it’s important to think about where to place the queue. For example, queues may be placed at the checkout in a physical store, whereas online stores tend to force a queue before a customer browses. Careful load testing will highlight potential bottlenecks of each shopping scenario and armed with this information the queue can be placed in the best position to provide users with the best shopping experience.

Another important planning tool is an operational run book. This will define key components, contacts and dates for holiday promotions and activities, and will enable clients and partners to communicate better, enjoy faster response times and experience increased efficiencies in solving business-critical needs.

Mobile commerce grows, but lags on popular shopping days: Trend underscores need for seamless “anywhere” experiences.

Europeans have embraced mCommerce with vigour. Specific highlights include Boxing Day in the UK and Ireland, during which the region recorded the highest average mobile activity of 61 percent (over desktop activity). And, as reported by IBM, mobile sales in the UK increased year-over-year by more than 29 percent. Furthermore, Akamai data shows that 20 percent of all European holiday traffic came from iPads and 14 percent came from Android devices.

While these are all impressive statistics, it is still difficult to say that mobile commerce drove sales on popular shopping days. European shoppers actually used mobile devices less frequently over Christmas   compared to the baseline activity, as measured throughout the month of October. During the winter months, Europeans turned to mobile devices two percentage points less (45 percent) than the 47 percent mobile baseline average.

Because of this seemingly conflicting data, it is imperative that retailers optimise their networks and applications to accommodate connected devices, but understand as much as they can about the context and connectivity of their users. Consumers are always connected – whether they’re in their homes, cars, offices or within a shop. Retailers should have technologies and analytics in place that allow them review real-time user experiences, regardless of where users are and what devices and operating systems they’re using.

Conclusion

It is no secret that web experiences impact business. Websites and apps must be fast, reliable and secure at all hours and under all traffic conditions, or retailers will see less engagement, higher bounce rates and abandoned shopping baskets, which can ultimately affect consumer loyalty and spend. In order to learn from the previous shopping season, online retailers must closely analyse their websites’ strengths and weaknesses, as well how each user accessed and experienced the site. We are now in springtime, but the  lessons of the busy winter months have revealed themselves, and the retailers who pay attention to them will celebrate even more success in 2015 and early 2016.

About Enrique Duvos Akamai

About Enrique Duvos Akamai

Enrique Duvos is a 17 year professional in the IT/Software industry, having joined Akamai in 2014 with strong expertise in Web and Mobile content creation and delivery. Prior to joining Akamai, Enrique managed several Global evangelism teams at Adobe Systems, helping customers design and develop the most advanced and unique web experiences across devices.

Most recently, Enrique serves as the Director of Product Marketing and Enablement for Akamai's Europe, Middle East and Africa division where he has responsibility for driving Akamai's Web Experience product strategy across EMEA. Enrique holds a degree in Computer Science from the University of Southern Maine, a Masters in Computer Science from Boston University, and a PMD from IESE Business School in Madrid.

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