3 Must-Dos for the E-Commerce Web Team Before Black Friday
Over my career I’ve worked with hundreds of e-commerce retailers selling everything from tools to laptops to plus-sized clothing. With the exception of seasonal goods (flowers, Halloween costumes, pool toys), virtually all e-commerce sites share the same excitement and terror this time of year: preparing for the holiday shopping season. From Black Friday through Cyber Monday to even Green Monday, retailers enjoy a dramatic increase in online sales. Tis the season.
But with this great increase comes great responsibility. An ill-prepared e-retailer can squander their brand and millions of dollars in lost sales if their site is not ready for the traffic.
October is a busy month for the e-commerce web team. This is their last chance to scale up inventory, beef up servers, and add that “one last feature” that could make all the difference over the competition. Come November, its time to “lock down” the changes and hold tight for the incoming storm. Nothing can break!
With this in mind, I wanted to highlight 3 of the top preparations the e-commerce web team should be implementing RIGHT NOW to help prevent the horrors of a “broken site” during your busiest season.
#1. Load Test Your Site
It is not uncommon to see a 5-10x increase in your site traffic over the holiday season, especially on key days like Black Friday. Are you ready for this peak load? The best way to find out is to run a load test against your site, preferably off-peak hours to minimize impact to existing buyers. Bonus points if you have the technical resources to carve off a separate staging environment for your test that will not impact your live production system.
A load test is a simulation of simultaneous traffic from external sources. There are a number of great cloud based load testing tools out there from companies such as LoadStorm, HP and Neustar for budgets of all sizes. Many have free tiers to evaluate their products. A google search on “cloud based load testing” will give you plenty of options.
Load testing tools are quite mature these days, and commonly allow you to script user flows common for e-commerce sites. For example, you may want to simulate a buyer landing on your home page, conducting a search, clicking a product, and adding it to your shopping cart.
Now take your traffic levels you see on a typical day, multiply by 5x (or more), and run a test to see how your site responds. If you have traffic logs from last year’s holiday season, use that as a baseline and double your busiest day.
You may find your site holds up well, or it may cave under pressure. Hopefully not the latter, but better to find out now then when your customers are pulling out their credit cards, right? If your site struggles, it may be time to look for optimizations or beef up your hardware. Time is running short!
#2. Monitor Your Site
Thanksgiving week is great time of year to relax, visit with family, eat some turkey and perhaps catch some football. You’ve worked hard and you deserve a break. Unfortunately its also one of the biggest e-commerce weeks of the year. The nightmare of any e-commerce store owner is to come back to work on Monday, only to discover their site has been down all weekend. Don’t let this happen to you, make sure you’ve setup a website monitoring tool.
Like load testing, there are many great cloud based uptime monitoring solutions out there. Again, many have good free tiers to get you started. We use pingdom at Zoompf, but there are many others as well. Just search on “website monitoring” and you’ll see lots of good options.
What these tools do is actually quite simple: you provide them one or more URLs to monitor, and they simply load them up at a time frequency of your choosing. It could be as frequent as every minute, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Its exactly like a person typing that URL into a browser and seeing what happens. If the page doesn’t load, you get an email and/or SMS text message telling you something has gone wrong. Often times you can define thresholds (“alert after 15 minutes”, etc.) to mitigate sensitive alarms if your system commonly has short hiccups throughout the day.
Nobody can manually monitor a site 24 hours a day, let the machines do what they are good at. And if you think “I didn’t change any code, nothing can go wrong”, think again. Log files may fill up all your server storage, the power may flip in your datacenter, mice chew the network cables, the government shuts down, who knows. Anything can and will happen, don’t live in a false sense of security.
#3. Optimize Your Shopping Cart Performance
Even if your site can handle the load and remains online to your users, a slow website will still turn away your customers to the competition. Never is performance more important than in your shopping cart. A slow shopping cart is the online equivalent of going to a (brick and mortar) store, picking a product, and then waiting in a long line to check out. If that line is moving too slow, you’re going to put that collector’s edition Breaking Bad Heisenberg box set on the shelf next to you and walk out the door to the store across the street with no lines.
Of course we’re in the performance business and will always preach fast performance, but there’s a huge body of independent research that quantifies what you already intuitively know: if your website is too slow, your customers will shop elsewhere. Don’t just optimize your home page, optimize your entire buying flow, including the shopping cart. Nothing is more maddening then finding the perfect gift, only to get stuck in progress bar hell waiting for a cart to load. Even worse, submitting a credit card only to receive a blank page in response does not instill a lot of confidence.
In an earlier post, we talked about the top 5 common causes of slow website performance. For your shopping cart, I’d especially highlight #1 (unoptimized images), #2 (content served without compression) and #4 (images without caching). Check out the linked blog article for more information about these problems and what you can do about it.
And of course Zoompf offers a great free tool to evaluate the root causes of slow performance on your website. Try evaluating different pages such as your category pages, item detail pages, and initial shopping cart page.
October is your last chance to prepare for the upcoming holiday traffic onslaught. Use your time wisely so you can truly enjoy a relaxed and profitable selling season.