Beating Black Friday: Five tips to help you deliver a website that works this winter

Beating Black Friday: Five tips to help you deliver a website that works this winter

By Alex Painter, Senior Web Performance Consultant, Eggplant

Summer is upon us, and most people aren’t thinking about Christmas yet. However, for retailers, the winter retail period, predominately Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Christmas, should be front of mind even when the sun is shining. Given the planning, lead times, testing and development, the time for retailers to be preparing is now.

Each year a high-profile retailer’s website goes down or suffers performance issues, severely damaging both revenue and reputation. Many organisations simply aren’t aware of the business benefits of delivering a faster website during peak. Preparedness for building a site capable of handling this massive spike in traffic takes time, so it’s essential that Black Friday preparation begins early. Otherwise, retailers risk failing to reap the rewards of the busiest shopping period of the year.

So, what can retailers do to ensure that this doesn’t happen? Here are five tips to help deliver a website that works this winter.

1. Test through the eyes of the user

Retailers need to know how their websites will behave under pressure. Limits should be understood: both the point that the website will slow down and the point it stops working altogether. To understand this, retailers should carry out load testing on their website—subjecting it to increased levels of traffic under controlled conditions while measuring the outcome. Website owners should also use Real User Monitoring (RUM) to understand the website through the eyes of the user, getting real-time insights into how traffic is affecting user behaviour and, ultimately, revenue.

Crucially, retailers need to start early to give themselves enough time to make changes (introducing more capacity, for example) and to run multiple tests. Note: this is as much a management challenge as a technical one, so collaboration is key. Although testing usually is a technical function, it should be owned and driven by the business.

2. Make it fast

It’s universally understood that faster websites will usually make higher sales than slow websites. Having a consistently fast website is important, so how can retailers make websites faster and more resilient when it matters most?

• Make the most of caching: If you give long cache lifetimes to static files that don’t change very often, more visitors will be able to load them directly from their browser cache rather than from the website. This means that those resources will load quicker for those visitors and there will be less pressure on the website’s systems.

• Reduce page size: Typically, smaller web pages load much faster than big ones. Retailers can reduce page sizes and speed up websites by optimising images, minifying text files and removing redundant content. If they don’t do this, they increase the risk of the website slowing down or falling over under pressure.   

• Use a Content Delivery Network (CDN): CDNs can make websites faster by delivering content closer to the end user. CDNs also make websites more resilient. If visitors are downloading content for the website from various locations—for example—it means the website will have less work at peak times.

3. Audit third parties
Most retailers rely on third party services, carrying out functions such as feature detection, remarketing, and analytics—so it’s important that they are prepared as well. Third party services are affected by the traffic patterns of countless websites, so they too can slow down or fail during peak.

However, there are steps that retailers can take to mitigate the risk of third-party services affecting their website. Website owners should attempt to eliminate third party single points of failure, for example, although this can be easier for some services than it is for others. Carrying out a full audit of third-party content on your website will help you assess the downtime dangers.  

4. Review (but don’t rely)

Although looking at last year’s figures is important when it comes to forecasting this year’s traffic, it’s also important to not rely too heavily on past figures. It’s highly unlikely that retail teams can predict future traffic with absolute accuracy—sometimes extrapolation just doesn’t work. 

This year might be very different from last year. For example, perhaps the retailer is running a TV campaign for the first time. So, while it’s important to have an estimation in place, analytics from previous years don’t always tell the entire story. 

5. Set up contingencies
Even if website owners do everything right, there is still the chance that issues can occur. Because of this, it’s important to have a contingency plan in place (e.g. arranging a queuing system for when the website is under pressure). However, not all contingency plans should be technical. The business should also be able to draw on extra call centre staff at short notice and should prepare their PR department to react in the event of downtime.

And remember, a website isn’t just for Christmas. In addition to peak times, testing and optimisation needs to be carried out on a regular basis to make sure sites are hitting top performance targets year round to give customers the best possible shopping experience to maintain loyalty and repeat business. 

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