Exercise E-commerce Sites With a Workout Well Before the Holiday Season
The holiday season is always a sprint for retailers. And just as a runner wouldn't run a marathon without training months beforehand, retailers need to have their e-commerce sites in tip-top shape long before going the distance this holiday season.
Every year, retailers are bombarded with news of the latest gadgets and gizmos that are "must-haves" to drive e-commerce revenue and customer loyalty. However, the real requirements are those features and functions that are in place and well-tested before the holiday rush.
Throughout the year, e-commerce retailers should test the basics during smaller-scale shopping events such as back-to-school. Viewing these opportunities as a warm-up means retailers can have strong plans in shape before customers give the site a power workout.
Most retailers know that strategy is key before the holidays. Unexpected issues will come up, but a strategic game plan based on proven, routine processes will create more time to deal with the unexpected.
Routine processes that should be defined well ahead of time include promotions such as free shipping, coupon offers and product pairings. Sites should choose and clearly explain predetermined cutoff dates for holiday deliveries.
Behind the scenes
A runner would not run a marathon in high heels and an overcoat, just as a retailer wouldn't launch a new site or features on the eve of Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) or Cyber Monday (the Monday immediately following Black Friday), two of the year's busiest shopping days. Retailers can lose sight of basic functionality during the holiday season because they're focusing on what customers are buying and what products need to be moved. So having the back end of the site in shape and knowing it has the ability to handle an increased traffic load can be lifesavers when the holiday rush starts to ramp up.
Also invisible to customers, but vitally important for the business, is to have a strong metrics system. If the site experiences any issues or anomalies during the season, it's helpful to review the site metrics to see what path visitors took and how the experience could be improved prior to the next high-traffic time period.
All systems need to be integrated, as well -- most notably for multichannel merchants. With a multichannel environment and the pervasiveness of Black Friday Web sites that list deals before they're physically in the hands of consumers, retailers should know which items are going to be moving and when. Once the ads are available online, competing retailers that offer the same items can make an educated guess at how their items might sell if priced comparatively.
Coordination between online and brick-and-mortar stores is crucial, more so than ever before, now that many merchants are offering "site to store" shipping options.
At the same time, retailers should be aware that online conversion rates have a high probability of decreasing during the holiday season. This doesn't mean that the Web site isn't doing what it's supposed to do. Rather, it means that many customers may be visiting the site only to view the in-store ad and to search for a nearby location -- not necessarily to shop online. Multichannel merchants can capitalize on these customers' interests by prominently displaying the store locator or offering a printable coupon for in-store use. Another option is to offer shoppers a printable shopping list to take to the store. This way, the Web site traffic can be tracked back to the physical store.
Increased visits to the site might also be the result of increased advertising efforts. But because the customers prompted by a holiday e-mail promotion aren't all qualified prospects for your products, the increase in visits doesn't always translate to conversions.
Although the visitor-to-purchase conversion rate might decrease with an influx of Web site visitors, it can be a result of multichannel success. The integration of online and offline offers and promotions ultimately can drive increased sales through both channels.
An important feature e-commerce sites should incorporate is the technology needed to quickly review data feeds of the previous days' sales to merchandise the most popular items as the top picks for the next day. This way, retailers can sell greater volumes of merchandise in a shorter period of time by making it easy for shoppers to find in-demand items.
Listen, learn and respond to your customers
When customers are active on the site during peak times, pay close attention to what their interests are and what features they seem to gravitate to most often. With the economy continuing its ups and downs, consumers are becoming choosier about where they spend their dollars.
The important focus of the seasonal rush is to know what's selling and how it's going to get to the customer in the most efficient manner. If the site is struggling with a recently implemented review process or if new technology isn't working exactly as planned, shoppers can be left looking for a new merchant to fulfill a holiday wish list. Also, a negative online experience tends to travel faster and to more places than a positive experience does.
Exercise caution when planning peak season marketing efforts. Staggering e-mail distribution helps prevent stress to the system; even sending out e-mails over a few hours, rather than all at once, places less stress on a system and doesn't diminish promotion effectiveness.
Learn now, act later
There are a few tactics to employ now to determine what should be added to a site in its next iteration. Retailers could consider incorporating an optional consumer survey either directly on the site or via e-mail following a purchase to see what features consumers want to see on the site.
Monitoring for your company name, executives and most popular brands through message boards, social networking sites and blogs is another effective way to gauge online reputation and learn what customers may be looking for when they are commenting about a shopping experience with a particular company.
Many customers expect their shopping experience to include features such as user reviews, enhanced product imagery and accurate inventory information. However, the time to create or launch these site features is not when it will experience its heaviest user load. Retailers should consider these features well in advance of when they actually go live. To be successful, these functions of an e-commerce site should be planned, tested and implemented well before holiday season arrives.
Pre-peak load testing should be done on an ongoing basis, not just before the final leg of the race. Retailers should forecast peak capacity, test for it and then test beyond it to the point of failure. It's good to pinpoint potential bottlenecks in the application or infrastructure early, rather than during actual stress on the system. Testing to the point of failure makes it easier to recognize the behavior of the system as it nears capacity. Troubleshooting as a result of near-capacity performance is always preferable to fixing something once it's broken. Testing early and often ensures that remediation, when necessary, happens faster.
Consider an "environment freeze" at least four weeks before peak season. Once tested, make no significant code or infrastructure changes to the environment. Even seemingly small changes can have a large impact on the overall capacity of the site.
Crossing the finish line
By having a tried-and-true back end in place year-round, fully integrated channels, a nimble site with dynamic merchandising and an ear to the ground to learn what online consumer feedback is, e-commerce sites will be ready for a robust holiday season that wins the loyalty of customers who return throughout the year.
When a retailer exercises its site throughout the year and knows how far it can stretch, it will be in shape and ready to run during the holiday season.
Reach Joey Lechtner at firstname.lastname@example.org