Last year, online retail sales reached £24 billion. Surprisingly or not, it was clicks rather than brick and mortar shopping that saw the most growth, with online sales rising by 7.4% compared to 0.1% at physical stores.

But with so much riding on online sales, this Christmas there can be no excuses for poor online shopping performance. Nonetheless, many seemingly well-designed sites can deliver surprisingly poor performance.

So it is ironic that to a great extent the answer is hidden in the way online retailers are trying to offer a satisfactory online customer experience of highest quality.
In the physical store, competing on customer experience means exciting festive store design, decorations and additional services. Online it is about investment in new e-commerce store fronts, social media integrations, and multi-media product experiences, among other features. All of these, as well as the related marketing analytics tools, are designed to create powerful online experiences that drive immediate customer retention, increase sales and build customer loyalty.

While being deployed for exactly the right reasons, if the performance of any single one of these services downgrades, it can drag down the performance of an entire site or application.

Simply said, sites are getting heavier and fatter and therefore taking longer to load. This is an added complication as online retail is increasingly taking place on mobile devices.

So what are the important questions e-commerce marketers should be asking their web performance teams about their Digital Christmas preparations?

1. Less is more: Image and HTML compression are critical to how to make websites smaller and thus run faster. Median e-commerce site size was 1.86MB in the 2015 festive season. This year the target size should be under 1.5MB. It is so important to have a lighter-weight version of a site for peak events, or at the very least to keep the most visited pages lighter than usual. Reduce dynamic content on your homepages or landing pages. Better still, move dynamic content to the capacity provided by content delivery networks (CDNs). Retailers can do some technical fixes here, like combining CSS and JavaScript files using utilities like Minify and combining images using CSS image sprites. Both of these techniques can minimise the number of HTTP requests it takes to load a page, a frequent cause of poor performance under heavy web traffic.

2. Trim back third-party tags: whether they’re used for advertising, social media, affiliate marketing, paid search, site analytics or other purposes, tags can create new dependencies that can hurt a site’s performance. To reduce page load times, use a tag management system to “containerize” tags and better manage the way they load.

3. Test and control APIs: This is especially important for mobile sites, which rely heavily on APIs that integrate with internal and external systems. This adds necessary functionality to sites, but those API integrations can also slow down web performance, especially when the number of concurrent users goes up when there’s a rush to online shop

4. Beef up the back end: If possible, deploy a high-capacity stack of application servers and web servers on peak traffic days. They will take the brunt of the high traffic. Make sure you continue to test and validate your performance against this stack.

5. Healthcheck the network: Make sure your network devices such as load balancers, routers, and switches can handle the extra traffic you’re expecting. Eliminate single points of failure in your network. If a load balancer error would take down your whole network if it failed, you need a better network design.

6. Challenge your CDN: Make sure your hosting provider, CDN provider, external DNS provider, or any third party you deal with can handle the traffic you’re expecting. There have already been cases of major digital services brought down by distributed denial of service attacks. So how well can your third party infrastructure absorb surges in request? Ask the right questions and ensure that the necessary optimisations have been made.

7. Prepare for failure: Even the best prepared and tested sites can go down at some point under heavy load. Complete all backups and provision additional hardware to minimise recovery time if your site does go down. Have your customer communications — i.e. web splash page that tells customers a site is down, Twitter alerts, discount code for when the site is back up, etc. — ready to go. No one wants to get to this point, but if customers can’t access a site or complete transactions, any retailer will want to do everything it can to placate them.

Retailers who have complied with all seven steps highlighted above are bound to offer the very best customer experience throughout the whole festive shopping season.


By Mehdi Daoudi, CEO of Catchpoint Systems

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