As we start a new year, recovering from the excesses of the festive season and distancing ourselves from Christmas trees, mulled wine and mince pies, as consumers we’re already bombarded with the next seasonal marketing campaigns — clearance sales, Easter eggs, and summer holidays. From so-called Hallmark holidays like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Secretary’s Day, to Halloween, Christmas and shopping spectaculars like Black Friday, these occasions mark great sales opportunities for retailers. And, with variable weather conditions, the importance increases.
Take Black Friday, as an example; in 2014 UK consumers spent £810m, with retailers like House of Frasier saying Black Friday was the busiest online trading day in its history. In 2015, this trend only continued with shoppers spending more money online on Black Friday than ever before. In fact, online sales topped £1.1bn, up 36% on the previous year’s figures. Spending was also more spread out over the consecutive days before and after the event as previous experience has taught many customers to select based on fulfilment and delivery commitments rather than price alone.
With these tremendous opportunities for retailers, the seasonal events also present new challenges. Having the right stock levels and being able to meet demand is obviously the most important aspect of any promotion. However, for online retailers the challenge is more complex — successful sales are dependent on customer experience on the website and their selected device at that point in time; and not just aesthetics or page responsiveness, but interaction support and ability to respond to customer input in terms of fulfilment options and delivery targets, which typically involves integration and queries to third-party logistics partners.
Ecommerce platforms rely on a number of technologies to ensure website performance matches capacity requirements. Often it is not practical or cost-effective to have the same capacity available all year round as it’s only really needed during peak seasonal periods. It is here that cloud services can play a significant role, in preparation and planning, as well as execution.
The first preparation step is to use platform data — like sales figures, website traffic and conversions, as well as application load profiles to establish the performance parameters of a given site under various loads. This needs to look at and identify specific trends like peaks and troughs in buying, lookup and fulfilment processes. Some events, like clearance sales or Black Friday, might be easier to identify, but using this information will help you identify dependencies such as lookups to third-party systems. The objective for any e-retailer is to ensure your customers receive a seamless, easy to use, highly responsive service and the key attributes and lookups perform at the same level to provide a consistent customer experience, which they can have confidence in. And this extends into other aspects like stock availability, order fulfilment tracking, delivery and after-sales support.
The second preparation step is to simulate these major events and test that your fulfilment and integrated processes perform as expected. This helps identify potential bottlenecks, as well as how the service can be monitored and most effectively supported under peak loads. This the same as, for example, in a high performance scenario where under extreme loads and demands, there is increased training, preparation and attention to detail to ensure every opportunity to succeed is taken through diligent monitoring and management.
The assumption that platform capacity and performance will scale linearly to absorb extra demand as a result of seasonal or sales peaks or even those caused by customers in different time zones should be validated and tested. In a nutshell, cloud makes it easier to scale capacity up or down as required, but it does not guarantee this will result in a consistent customer experience for everyone. Working closely with a hosting provider, supported with analytics, will validate scale out performance assumptions. Whether you are relying on private, public or hybrid cloud solutions, service providers have the tools, monitoring and modelling capabilities and the experience to understand the changes needed to ensure ecommerce platforms are always performing optimally, regardless of the seasonal traffic.
This could mean improving your content delivery networks (CDNs) or load balancing capabilities. It could involve application code analysis and optimisation. Again, working with your hosting or infrastructure partner will ensure you can address all these aspects of your operation to make sure they’re functioning in an optimum way.
In the age of omni-channel shopping platforms, retailers need to ensure that customers receive a consistent, streamlined and effective experience. It’s the use of technology, like cloud, that can help them achieve this. However, importantly, retailers must balance the need to deliver that perfect customer experience while maximising their technology investment.
By Matt Lovell, CTO, Pulsant