Top tips to prepare your ecommerce site for the 2017 festive season

It’s mid-July and we have just experienced some of the hottest days of the year. So, it’s hard to believe that Christmas is around the corner. 

However, for retailers, this is the start of their festive planning period with retailers like John Lewis hosting “Christmas in July” events to showcase their festive collections. 

Early previews of baubles and tinsels has made a great deal of sense for many years now. This same philosophy increasingly needs to be extended to preparations for Digital Christmas as the proportion of festive shopping done online keeps on rising. The Office of National Statistics for December 2016 showed that the amount spent online accounted for approximately 15 per cent of all retail spend, compared with 13.1 per cent in December 2015.

So, it makes a great deal of sense to start preparations for Digital Christmas early and here are some top tips.

#1 Get smartphone ready

All the studies suggest consumers will be shopping on their smartphones this Christmas. When we surveyed British consumers last year the majority (47 per cent) of all respondents of all ages say they use their smartphone to shop and nearly a third of all British shoppers (29 per cent) say they will do more online shopping on their smartphone during the Christmas period. Talk to younger shoppers and the criticality of the smartphone becomes even stronger. Shopping on their smartphones provides 42 per cent of millennials with happier and much better experience than visiting a physical store. In comparison, only 29 per cent of older shoppers feel the same about this new shopping revolution.

Poor mobile performance harmed some Christmas retail in 2016 and could do so again in 2017. A high percentage of consumers of all ages (63 per cent) said that shopping on mobile devices is often spoiled by slow loading websites and apps. Poor technical performance means that consumers will avoid making purchases from that website or mobile app again (60 per cent of all respondents), or even be less likely to visit a retailer in-store because of a negative online or mobile experience (47 per cent of all respondents).

So be scrupulous in testing end user experience for your mobile sites and apps. Strive to be over-critical and over-test because you’ll prefer to be the first to know of performance issues rather than it be a customer. 

#2 Use your Real User Monitoring (RUM) and synthetic data

A big part of a Digital Christmas in July planning must be to run some serious simulations of what the digital retail experience for shoppers could be like. Use the RUM data from your past Christmas results to find out how users were engaging with your site and where the business metrics are impacted by slow load times. The RUM data can give you valuable information on which part of your website is important for your user and this can give you an idea on where your IT engineers should focus on. If you haven’t performed real user monitoring in December, my advice would be to start running synthetic tests from July. From the data from synthetic analysis you can find out what pages on your site are working well and this is a good first point of preparations for the busy festive shopping period. 

#3 Have a strict third-party apps policy 

Retailers tend to heavily decorate their Christmas sites with a lot of content like third-party apps, videos and marketing analytics tools, attempting to make the customer experience richer. As retailers compete to offer more compelling online experiences, their home and other key pages become heavier with rich media like embedded videos, social media and other interactive features. However, third-party apps can have a significant impact on page-load time and contribute to a poor consumer experience. This could lead to a consumer clicking off a site early. For example, over the lunchtime on Black Friday 2016 itself, our analysis showed that the websites of two of the UK’s biggest department stores took many more seconds to load than the industry average of 3-4 seconds. Upon investigation, this was attributed to poorly performing third-party elements. When there are traffic surges, this can mean the site slows down to a crawl or there are minor or major outages. 

Therefore, retailers need to analyse the additional content they invest in and ask themselves the question “What is the value of this service?”.

#4 Evaluate your CDNs

Doing a comprehensive assessment of how well your infrastructure can absorb a digital customer surge is something that shouldn’t be left to November. Retailers need to make sure their hosting provider, CDN provider, external DNS provider, or any third party they deal with can handle the expected high volume of traffic. They also need to evaluate how well CDNs are able to deal with DDoS attacks as there have already been cases of major digital services brought down by such attacks. So, can your third-party infrastructure absorb surges in requests well enough? Ask the right questions and ensure that the necessary optimisations have been made.

#5 Test and manage your APIs

Looking after APIs is especially important for mobile sites, as they rely significantly on APIs that integrate with internal and external systems. APIs add necessary functionality to sites, but at the same time they can also slow down web performance, especially when the number of users goes up.

#6 Call for a Digital Experience Officer  

Ensuring a well performing website for Digital Christmas is a team effort, but there’s a concern that responsibilities can get blurred. One major issue is how the pressure from marketing for a richer online shopping experience can over-stuff a site with content and apps that will impair performance, especially during a spike in traffic. Using July to hammer out a digital customer experience strategy underpinned by a commitment to test digital performance regularly is a vital step. The important thing here is keep your nerve and hold everyone to account when they start lobbying for more content on the site in December. Always remind them of the risks to lose customers because of slow or crashing online experiences. Again, use your monitoring tools to analyse the effects of adding in another video or tracking app. 

One thing is clear, online ecommerce is growing and retailers need to work constantly for keeping that pace and meeting their customers’ demands. It is crucial that retailers constantly monitor how customers are experiencing digital services in order to keep up with their growing demand and ensure their positive experience. By incorporating those tips into your strategy from July you will be able to get the basics of delivering a fast and responsive digital retail experience for all consumer groups. 

Tobias Dreyschultze, Senior Performance Engineer, Catchpoint Systems
Image source: Shutterstock/Maxx-Studio