Black Friday: How online retailers can maximise sales this season

The Christmas sales have begun, and retailers are counting down the days to some of the biggest e-commerce days of the year.

If last year is any indication, Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2019 are likely to drive another huge peak in online traffic given the discount event is seen as such a great opportunity to get Christmas shopping done on a budget. However, Black Friday 2018 saw some big retail names suffer due to problems with their online experience that drove shoppers to competitors, generating bad press and negative buzz on social media, as well as potentially costing companies millions of pounds in lost revenue.

It’s a race against the clock for retailers to digitally prepare, but what should e-commerce players be doing right now to make sure they are ready?

Build real-time e-commerce analytics dashboards

Real-time analytics dashboards, which can track key metrics and user satisfaction scores, give teams visibility into their customers’ experiences across web, mobile, and other aspects of your service that are delivered by third parties, such as video content, payments, or deliveries.

Dashboards should ideally sit in the retailer’s network operations centre so that they are easily accessible to the entire e-commerce management staff as a single source of truth. Shared dashboards make it possible for retailers to easily identify and fix issues before they become serious problems – whether it’s due to a third-party service outage, performance issue on your site, or another cause.

Proactively monitor transactions from start to finish

As much as retail teams would like for their jobs to be done as soon as a customer clicks the ‘buy now’ button, the truth is that this is just the start of the process. Once a customer makes an order, the transaction – along with its revenue – remains susceptible to a number of errors whether it be to do with payment gateways, payment processors, or slow networks.

It is hugely important to track the magnitude and ratio of successful and failed orders to observe patterns ahead of expected high online traffic. Monitoring the payment methods used can also show which method results in the highest number of successful transactions or which consistently underperform.

Teams can also implement synthetic monitoring – site testing that simulates the actions of a customer to monitor for faults – to understand the reasons for failed payments.

The key goal is that you are in a proactive position to spot problems before customers start to complain. When the customer knows an issue before you do, a customer is more inclined to turn to a competitor, costing your business not only reputational damage but also customer loyalty and potential revenue.

Through simulations and spotting minor signs before they accumulate into a bigger problem, you are better able to troubleshoot issues and thus improve the rate of payment success.

Test, test, and test again

Retailers’ planning and preparation will be all for nothing if they don’t make the proper checks to ensure everything is working as it should. There are a variety of ways to test your site, from load testing – simulating the traffic volumes you expect during your busiest periods to see how well your systems will perform – to more advanced tests such as chaos engineering, an increasingly popular approach to improving the resiliency of complex, modern technology architectures.

It is also a good idea to run statistical tests on different versions of your sites and apps to identify which features and functionalities work best to drive sales. For example, you could work out whether tagging products with a ‘selling fast’ message encourages them to buy faster or whether a differing image gallery format is easier to scroll through and find the perfect product.

Be ready to adapt

No matter how many tests have been done and estimations made, retailers still have to be prepared to stay flexible when Black Friday comes around. For example, you may expect shopper traffic to thin out around 2 a.m. but a popular promotion or performance issues with a competitor’s site could cause your site to be flooded with users until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., which could cut into the window available to conduct routine housekeeping tasks.

Throughout Cyber Week, retailers should continue to assess their key performance indicators and trends to identify any opportunities for improvement. By conducting continuous analysis, retailers can decide whether it is worth making each change – e.g., acting right away to fix major issues or waiting until a quieter moment for value-added alterations.

Lastly, once the biggest e-commerce days of the year are over, retailers need to remember to undertake an evidence-based, blameless post-mortem using site performance observability data to understand what went well and what could have been better. This will help them prepare for future periods of peak traffic as well as the day-to-day.

E-commerce is a 365-days-a-year business. While there’s even more at stake during peak season, every day is critical for online retailers. Successful companies need a flexible, “always-on” approach to development, testing, and monitoring.

Mike Riley, senior director UK and Northern Europe, New Relic

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