Why online retailers should be scrambling now to avoid Black Friday outages

There's new data revealing that this year's holiday shopping season may be the busiest yet for online retailers. 

New reports show that the explosive growth of ecommerce is driving more Americans online and away from brick and mortar. Big retailers like Gymboree, Lane Bryant and Michael Kors are closing thousands of stores and 25% of shopping malls are expected to close in the next five years.   

It’s all part of the biggest disruption in shopping patterns since the mail-order catalog was invented – making it more important than ever before for online retailers to prepare now for the onslaught of traffic come Black Friday and Cyber Monday.   

While most consumers are taking their summertime vacations, retail giants are mobilizing to beef up their online infrastructure and stress test their systems to handle the surge of holiday shoppers at the end of the year – which can generate more than 30% of their yearly sales. 

Despite this preparation, every holiday shopping season spawns a list of notable failures. Even the smallest misstep in these important preparations can lead to major problems down the road, when retailer web and mobile sites buckle under huge volumes of traffic and experience outages, resulting in lost revenue and tarnished brand images. 

In fact, a recent survey of more than 1,000 Americans revealed that 52% of US consumers already expect retailers to have a major outage during the holiday shopping season – with Walmart (23%), BestBuy (17%), Macy’s (16%) and Target (16%) noted as having the most risk of crashing. 

To keep retailers’ applications running smoothly, IT and Ops teams should follow a checklist to help them hit their targets throughout the year so they are ready for extreme scalability and continuous IT operations when the big shopping days hit. The biggest online shopping days this season are expected to be Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Green Monday, Free Shipping Day and Super Saturday. 

Here is what IT and Ops teams should have already checked off their list this year: 

Build for high availability and resiliency: You want to ensure that your infrastructure can scale beyond your expectations of traffic and incorporates a high availability (HA) strategy that also delivers resiliency in case of server failure – be that web server, app server, or database server.   

Web load balancers have proven invaluable for enabling resiliency at the web tier: With connection management, load distribution, and the ability to detect and route around downed web servers, these devices have enabled zero downtime at the web tier. The data tier is the next frontier.   

Investigate how technologies such as database load balancing software can shield your apps – and therefore your customers – from database downtime, enabling zero downtime at the app tier. 

Add new features and new technology: If you have major infrastructure or architecture upgrades to do, this is the time. Even if these features and technologies do not apply specifically to Black Friday efforts, you need to get them into play so you know how they affect the entire system.   

Work towards a goal of zero downtime: Seamless and immediate database failover is central to achieving zero downtime. Keeping your customers logged in and productive is paramount to Black Friday sales numbers. 

Review your infrastructure with an eye toward avoiding downtime from maintenance windows: This approach includes maintenance for adding new services. Because database load balancing software is transparent to the application layer, no application changes are required to scale, optimize, or add resiliency to new or existing applications and services.   

And here is what IT and Ops teams should be doing now to prep for Black Friday: 

 July 

Increase site performance: It’s time to rev up the engine that will boost site performance to easily handle Black Friday traffic loads, delivering consistent and excellent customer experience. When it comes to databases, application performance bottlenecks tend to fall into three main categories: 1. poor query performance, 2. lack of concurrent capacity to handle high user loads, and 3. connection pooling / management issues. Look for technologies that can address these challenges capabilities. 

August/September 

Implement the system freeze and test all components: August is the time to stop making changes to your infrastructure. While most organizations have to occasionally accept last-minute updates beyond this point in time, most components should enter a freeze now. 

This time is also good for delving into analytics again to see where you have potential weaknesses in the system: Start applying load tests to see how all your infrastructure changes are holding up. Testing at high load now gives you time to address any issues you uncover.   

October 

See how natural load increases are affecting your system: By early October, you’ll likely start to see traffic increase on a daily basis. Natural traffic growth can provide a better test backdrop than they load testing you engineer because it typically reveals surprises. Your Black Friday preparations should all be in place by now.   

November 

Analyze the traffic: Organizations with high Black Friday loads report Black Friday traffic being a 10X to 15X spike over rest-of-year numbers. Some organizations see as much as a 5X spike on Black Friday compared to Thanksgiving Thursday – it can be a dramatic traffic ramp.  

Make any last-minute adjustments: If you’ve been leveraging analytics throughout the year, any last-minute adjustments should be minor, and most likely based on an unexpected traffic increase in October that signals higher traffic rates on Black Friday. 

December 

You made it! Wipe your brow, grab a beer and evaluate what just happened – it’s time for the postmortem. Robust analytics with troubleshooting tools are paramount. Now is also the time to schedule January priorities.   

Online retailers who follow these steps will be ready for the onslaught of traffic that will come their way this holiday shopping season. This will mean continuous uptime of their web and mobile sites, happy and returning customers and more revenue. 

Michelle McLean, VP of Marketing, ScaleArc 

Image Credit: Pretty Vectors / Shutterstock