2018 holidays could be the biggest readiness test for online retailers ever

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For retailers these days, it's the Internet or bust – literally. Each year, a greater percentage of retail sales is done online. And as an indication on where the trend is going, 84 per cent of consumers 19 to 21 years of age prefer to shop online.

With the economy humming along and consumer confidence higher than it's been in nearly two decades, it's safe to assume that this year's holiday shopping season will be one of the best ever. And with the continued decline of brick and mortar retailing – including the closure of Toys R'Us and Sears declaring bankruptcy – more of those holiday season purchases will be made online. As young as they may be, those 19 through 21 year olds, as well as all the shoppers behind them - the denizens of what has become known as Generation Z and all digital natives – are the future. They may herald the end of brick and mortar stores, but they are also going to bolster online sales.

So, it would seem, online retailers have a rosy future. But it's not that simple; unlike at the mall, it's a lot easier for a retailer to get “lost” online. There are millions – maybe even tens of millions – of online stores, and ensuring a presence that is noticed by consumers is both difficult and key.

But the most basic element of that success is to ensure that a site remains online and available. Without that, nobody will be buying or selling anything. It's all about resiliency – if you're not there, you're nowhere, so make sure you remain online and available.

And it's not just about availability, either; it's about reputation. Even a partial outage – such as when one specific service is not operating properly – could wreak havoc with a site's reputation.  How is a customer supposed to feel when they make an order and pay via credit card, but are unable to check the status of their order, or determine the shipping information? If the online coupons they are trying to apply don't work, customers frustrated with the buying process could leave behind a cart full of goods, abandoning it right before they were about to pay. Problems like these, as well as many others, could make or break a company.

How resilient are you?

Thus the importance of resilience – ensuring that a site can get back online as soon as possible if an outage occurs, or that services that go down can be revived quickly. But how resilient are you? How prepared are you for the onslaught of customers on the big online shopping days of Black Friday and Cyber Monday? Are your hardware and sales systems up to the pre-holiday crush? Can you be sure that your sites or e-commerce systems won't fail over the ticked-up demand? Perhaps more than ever, this holiday season, a site's preparedness will likely be put to an extreme test – and if the site isn't accessible to customers, they will just go elsewhere to make their purchases.

At large companies, IT outages could cost as much as $100,000 an hour, a Rand Organisation report says. But for smaller online retailers, the cost could be even greater; an outage could literally put them out of business if their customers get tired of waiting for the site to come back online. To avoid outages, retailers need to understand what causes them – but in many cases, they won't be able to. That's because, according to a study by the University of Chicago on cloud outages, the biggest reason for them is “unknown.” That study, which examined the roots of service outages at online companies, determined that the majority – nearly 300 of the 500-some instances that were examined – were due to  factors that IT teams just could not figure out.

It's a shocking statistic – and it means that in order to avoid outages or fully restore service and data in the shortest possible time, companies need a better understanding of the risk they face and how to mitigate it. But it actually makes sense: IT systems today are so complicated that even a slight change to a config file or an update to an  instance service limit could upset an entire IT infrastructure. In addition, online retailers are unlikely to have the time or resources to track down problems that could be causing their service outages.

Any and all help is welcome

This is where online retailers could use some help. Fortunately, there are tools that will enable them to understand the level of resilience and risk, track down problems and fix them before they cause an outage. Outsourcing the job to experts who know what to look for is the only intelligent move for an online retailer.

For example, an AWS EC2 instance service limit could be set too low - which leads to the possibility that on Cyber Monday, when the number of customers is unusually high, this limit will crush the system. Even though you are using an elastic public cloud in order to be grow as needed, this small limit will not allow you to grow when you need it most.

It's unlikely that the owner of a small retail site is going to know which parameter was updated, and where – and they could be spending many hours trying to track down the error themselves. Meanwhile, the site will be losing out on the many potential sales that connecting to that web forum might have garnered them.

Obviously this is a job for those with the expertise in analysing and repairing these things – and the professionals who have the knowledge base and analytics tools to scan through IT systems and determine if something is awry are the ones who should be doing that work. Given the competitive environment web retailers find themselves in; and given the extra opportunities resulting from the fall of giants like Sears, Toys R'Us, and others; and given the fact that Christmas, and its attendant buying season, comes but once a year – web retailers need all the IT resiliency help they can get.

Iris Zarecki, VP Marketing, Continuity Software
Image Credit: WNDJ / Pixabay