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Prepare your company for Black Friday in 3 easy steps

Black Friday to Cyber Monday – the four busiest days of the retail year. The average consumer views this four-day period as a time filled with door-buster sales, shoulder-to-shoulder in-store crowds, and online shopping galore. But having an understanding of the holiday shopping “behind the scenes” paints an entirely different picture of this period – one better defined by meticulous planning, carefully executed logistics, and traffic load. Lots and lots of traffic load.

For the retail industry, the four-day period between Black Friday and Cyber Monday is often considered the World Series, Daytona 500 and Super Bowl, all rolled into one. An entire year of practice goes into a four-day event, and in fact, preparations begin a whole six months before anyone has even thought about their Thanksgiving Day menu.

While shoppers may not have Black Friday on their minds yet, brands and retailers should already be preparing internally. With a well-executed plan, they can ensure that their infrastructure is equipped to deal with the IT pressures accompanying this hectic weekend.

The Why

If Ben Franklin could witness the craziness that ensues during the biggest four days of the shopping season, I'm certain he would remind us of his famous advice, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

Last year, we saw five billion review impressions between Black Friday and Cyber Monday – a 20 per cent increase from the previous year. This year, we expect to see an additional 15-20 per cent increase in traffic, making it all the more important to prepare in advance.

On average, holiday traffic increases about 20-25 per cent, year on year. Knowing this allows brands and retailers to anticipate the amount of traffic expected on the site during the holiday rush and prepare accordingly. Without modelling traffic growth and preparing to accommodate that growth, you could find surprises which come in the form of unexpected (and unwanted) failures.

These failures can put even the most well-oiled companies in fire-drill mode – a situation no one wants to encounter during the busiest shopping days of the year. These types of failures are often complex, take much longer than expected to fix, and most importantly, negatively impact the end consumer. And, with a 2015 Vision Critical study finding that 42 per cent of Americans will stop shopping with a brand after just two bad experiences, offering a poor consumer experience during this critical shopping period is unacceptable.

The How

Sure, saying you’ll be ready to handle Black Friday traffic is one thing, but actually being prepared is an entirely different animal. It takes a significant amount of time and effort to make sure everything is ready to go.

One thing to keep in mind is that you can never start planning early enough. Ideally, Black Friday preparations should begin in May by appointing a Black Friday coordinator who delegates responsibility between teams, ensures that all individuals understand their role, and tracks progress from kick-off to completion. This leader works to keep communication – both internal and external – clear throughout the entire process.

Then companies should move into engineering preparation, and this is where the real fun begins. In its most generalised form, this phase can be divided into three buckets:
•Statistical Modelling. Knowing how your site performed during previous Black Holiday shopping days is key to setting accurate expectations for this year’s traffic. Pull data from the last 3-5 years of holiday traffic and use this information to predict site traffic for the current year. Don’t stop there – be sure to add a buffer beyond your anticipated traffic to give the site a safety margin, just in case this year’s traffic surprises you.
•Test. Once you have an idea of the kind of traffic you can expect on your network, it’s time to begin testing and scaling your existing infrastructure to handle increased load. In an isolated test environment, build out real-time scenarios to simulate that level of traffic. Also, remember to test fail-over scenarios, to better understand how your system will behave and recover if a service unexpectedly does fail.
•Scale. As Black Friday approaches and your business has worked through key testing and preparation procedures, take everything that was uncovered and start spinning up infrastructure in the cloud in preparation for real-time holiday traffic. The time when this should take place is different for every company – you’ll need to find the sweet spot between scaling up too early and wasting money, and scaling up too late and missing some critical traffic.

Throughout all of this, your designated Black Friday coordinator should be in regular communication with the individuals who are impacted and affected by Black Friday – both internally and outside the organisation. There should be a plan in place for how communication will be pushed out, particularly during the holiday rush, and how teams will interact with each other before, during, and after the rush.

The Checklist

Black Friday prep isn’t easy, but it’s a critical practice for any retailer looking to be successful. For the companies who don’t have six or seven months to prepare, or a designated expert Black Friday vendor to handle the load for you, here’s an easy checklist to make sure you’ve got the bases covered:

•Is your site scaled to handle any and all potential increase in traffic?
•Do you have enough inventory on hand as well as a clear shipping strategy?
•Have you identified the latest date that purchases can be made in order to ensure they are developed and shipped on time? Has this been communicated clearly?
•Has your software been updated and is your site secure? Fraudulent behaviour and crime increases during the holiday season, so it is critical that you perform a security audit well in advance of the holidays to shore things up in time.

Now that your business is thoroughly prepared, go relax, enjoy family time, and try to figure out what to get your Great Aunt Edna this year.

Gary Allison, Executive Vice President of Engineering, Bazaarvoice