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Fail to prepare, prepare to fail – a guide to preparing for the next big retail launch

artificial intelligence retail
(Image credit: Image Credit: Zapp2Photo / Shutterstock)

With more people shopping online than ever, e-commerce platforms are starting to struggle on a more regular basis. Website performance and fulfilment issues are now emerging due to the unexpected increase in the volume of traffic. This is a similar scenario to what we saw at the back end of last year, when some retail websites failed to cope with the launch of the in-demand next generation games consoles. While some spikes in consumer demand are difficult to predict, many increases in traffic are tied to pre-planned launches, and steps can be put in place to prepare for them.

As consumers get more comfortable with ordering online, retailers face ever-increasing challenges and need to prepare for those big spikes to come, which are set to get even larger. With this in mind, web performance specialists are often reminded that, if they fail to prepare, they are in essence preparing to fail. Often, retailers that are equipped with the tools to survive still fail to plan ahead for these worst-case scenarios. In fact, many companies that put a significant budget into capabilities, such as expandable cloud computing, will get caught out by small details. Scaling a website is similar to building a strong suit of armor; you need to pull together a collection of different components and parts, making sure you configure them properly so there is no point of weakness.

What’s more, a large increase in legitimate users wanting to visit a site can be just as dangerous as a Denial of Service (DoS) attack in the sense that they have a similar end result – website downtime. While these DoS attacks normally look to exploit different parts of the page load process, common areas of deliberate denial of service attacks include focused attempts to overload one or all of the three key parts of the website – the DNS service, the website’s back-end server, or by flooding the bandwidth. It is much easier and cheaper for cyber-criminals and hackers to generate the scale to attack a single area than to target a complete page load.

What we often see with major product releases is a large upsurge in legitimate users who put a strain on all three of these parts of the website (as the user wants to experience the complete page load). Compiling this issue is the fact that 94 percent of websites today have a third-party partner involved, meaning that retailers do not have control over the entire page load process. Retailers must ensure they select any third-party carefully as, if they fail to withstand the pressure, the whole site could crash.

Make sure you are in the best place to manage a traffic spike

Building additional layers of support, and adding more hardware, is the common response when a retailer expects a big spike in customer traffic. But having the biggest and best equipment is no guarantee of success. Instead, to be good at anything, it requires practice, and website owners must apply the same logic, which is where load testing becomes essential. Testing capacity ahead of time on a production site is the only way to guarantee success. Retailers should select a load testing tool that enables them to simulate high user traffic by instantly scaling up and down test loads before the event. Not only is this a great security blanket if things do start to go wrong, but it saves time in the long-term by being able to quickly scale the website based on demand.

The next consideration is what to test. Some businesses may decide to exclude static content as they assume that it is hosted on the content delivery network and will be fine. Typically, for this type of event, new websites are spun up with new landing pages. Retailers need to ask themselves a key question, however: Do the new pages get cached under their existing CDN setup and provide that much needed scale and offload? Or, has the business just created content that falls outside of existing rules, and their biggest asset on release day has just been rendered useless?

Retailers can also prepare by taking away value-add services, removing recommendation engines from key pages or turning off content targeting for a couple hours during the initial surge. Clearly, these decisions must be made across the business – from commerce all the way across to IT teams – as only a cohesive team effort can result in a lean website that is capable of surviving an expected spike.

Create a physical shopping experience on the web

When faced with an onslaught of traffic, many retailers resort to queuing systems. Queues are useful in creating a steadier flow of traffic; however, developers should use them as a last resort – an insurance policy that mitigates the losses of a website failure. These services would also do well to help retailers in instances where queuing numbers get extreme, enabling greater transparency with customers. For instance, retailers must always be clear on how much stock is available, avoiding keeping people in queues for a product that is sold out. Holding a surplus of customers in a queue can generate negative feeling from people who trusted the platform, damaging the business’ reputation in the long-term, as those who queued for hours might expect to have a product reserved.

Systems, such as online queues, should ultimately mimic the physical shopping experience as much as possible. When it comes to planning for major product releases, if retailers can allot customers stock upon entering the queue, it is more representative to someone entering a shop and picking the item off the shelf. In addition, if the website then encounters issues with the more transactional process of checking out, the retailer should let the customer enter their details and queue them virtually. With the introduction of edge computing, retailers now have a new tool in their armory to start applying complex logic near the end user but more importantly in an area of the internet or network with more scale and capacity. As the adoption grows, we should see more and more intuitive solutions that enable retailers to make queuing online much smarter and less stressful for users.

With e-commerce platforms continuing to be the ‘go to’ buying channel for people who are stuck at home, retailers are set to face increased traffic and customer demand. Retailers must prepare for this by continuously testing their website’s page load capacity. Those who do not adapt to this changing landscape, failing to adopt a seamless and reliable online shopping experience, will ultimately miss out on a large slice of their potential sales. In the coming year, it will be more essential than ever for retailers to be able to navigate the complex world of web performance.

Michael Gooding, Manager of Web Performance Architects, Akamai Technologies

Michael Gooding, Manager of Web Performance Architects at Akamai Technologies.