Date: 21st October 2015
The supply and demand equation
While the relentless rise of ecommerce has enabled many established retailers to repurpose their businesses by exploring trading opportunities outside the traditional high street channels, it’s also created a new set of technological and logistical problems – problems that are exacerbated during peak buying times. The retailer’s basic strategy is to make it easy for consumers to browse and buy – on any day of the year – and then make sure scheduled delivery meets expectations. Sounds simple enough in theory. But consistently matching supply to demand, while minimising running costs can be a tricky balance to maintain.
It goes without saying that seasonal peaks and troughs need to be reflected in retailers’ online provision; no business wants to underwrite a web operation that’s optimised to peak demand all year round – the online equivalent of retaining a full complement of seasonal staff in shops in the middle of February. That said, if retailers fail to plan adequately for spikes in demand, they could risk losing millions of pounds’ worth of business in a matter of hours.
Rising to the challenge
In 2014, global ecommerce sales reached $1.3 trillion (emarketer.com) with 1 billion customers buying goods online. Seasonal peaks generally parallel familiar trends in the retail market, with concentrated periods of ultra-high demand that have to be factored in to any successful web system.
Black Friday is proving to be something of a challenge for online retailers. This recently imported US post-thanksgiving flash sale has ignited the imagination of the British public, and its popularity is increasing exponentially year on year. In 2014, online orders across the board increased by over 40% compared to a normal trading day, resulting in an estimated £810m online spend by British shoppers during this single 24-hour period. John Lewis and Currys – two of the UK’s biggest retail websites – each saw web traffic triple compared to Black Friday the year before.
Matching capacity to demand
This year, Black Friday falls on 27 November in the UK and forecasters predict that online sales will top £1bn, with four times as many British shoppers planning to buy this year as last (Salmon). Not that shopping will be confined to just the one frantic day, as retailers look to capitalise on this massive pre-Christmas sales opportunity by releasing special offers in the week running up to Black Friday itself. All of which means the commercial stakes are even higher.
While retailers will, rightly, be anxious to ensure they have adequate logistics support in place to deliver the goods they’ve sold, it’s absolutely crucial that sales are enabled in the first place by optimising websites to offer an outstanding customer experience across multiple devices. If customers encounter frustrating error messages or virtual queues, they’re likely to try their luck with a competitor instead. By focusing on the performance of key online purchasing journeys, retailers will be able to increase conversion rates and boost online revenue.
It’s all in the planning
Last year, retailing leviathans such as John Lewis, Argos and Tesco Direct struggled to handle the surge in demand. The Currys website crashed, despite the company implementing virtual queuing, while Argos had to set up a traffic-light system to limit customers using the site. By contrast, M&S and Debenhams enjoyed sustained traffic throughout.
Ideally, businesses should be load testing key journeys at least six months in advance of expected spikes in demand as well as monitoring key journeys constantly to ensure consistent performance on multiple devices. It’s important to monitor and load test right to the journey’s end, though, including ‘Click and Collect’ or delivery options. It’s the only reliable way to guarantee your online shop is always open for business.
Brought about by the explosion of mobile, modern consumers expect to shop on the devices they want too whenever and wherever they want too; omni channel retail is the buzzword and managing mobile performance is key this year as well as managing new mobile payment methods.
Tipping the scales in your favour
There are some practical things you can do in the days and weeks running up to flash sales like Black Friday. Firstly, strip down your site to deliver only core functionality in order to avoid slowdowns and consider reducing the range of products offered for the flash sale period to ensure the best speed, stock control and experience at busy times. It’s important to recognise that any change to a site carries risk of attendant performance problems; the last-minute scramble to update sites with Black Friday sections and special deal codes is one factor causing problems.
Check for obvious pricing discrepancies. There’s nothing more frustrating for customers than mis-priced goods and it’s a mistake that could cost you dearly, so set up intelligent alerts on obvious pricing problems: multiple items at the same price, for instance.
Keep journey pages small to optimise performance on mobile devices. Check your monitoring for oversized pages, optimise images and minimise Java Script and CSS.
Monitor un-buyable products. Avoid customer frustration by flagging and resolving products that are findable by your customers but, for a number of reasons, can’t be added to basket.
Make sure your site’s ready for a bumper online Christmas by downloading our handy Christmas ecommerce tips! Find out how well retailers managed Black Friday and pre Christmas performance on mobile last year with SciVisum’s mCommerce report.