How Online Retailers Are Gearing Up for the Holidays

The holiday season is upon us, and Christmas is just around the corner. The seasonal shopping frenzy kicked off on ‘Black Friday,” picked up steam on “Cyber Monday,” and continues all the way till Christmas eve.

Buying presents for everyone on your Christmas list early used to be kind of a big deal. In the pre-internet era, it would take quite a bit of planning and effort, as well as several hours of actual shopping time, to get this task accomplished. Today, you can whip through your Christmas shopping online in just minutes, with shortcuts like wish lists from your recipients and pre-entered payment data reducing the time required even further.

The seamless customer experience that most online shoppers enjoy today did not come about by accident. The retail industry has spent decades and billions of dollars researching and developing their online presences with a special focus on the holiday season, and with good reason, given that more than 20% of total annual US retail industry sales occur during the five-week holiday season.

Retailers Beefing Up Their IT Infrastructure

In 2017, Black Friday was plagued by intermittent internet outages, largely because retailers were not sufficiently prepared for the huge volume of traffic they got. AP News highlights five areas of IT infrastructure that retailers focus on to prepare for this year’s traffic:

1. Carefully vet third party elements of your website. Virtually all webpages today include elements hosted by third parties outside of the direct control of the main site. A single slow third-party component will slow down an entire page, so make sure to carefully vet all third party elements on your website for robustness and quick support if a problem does develop.

2. Online retailers need to monitor regional internet performance data, not just national data. If you only monitor page load times only using national averages, you will likely be missing local or statewide performance problems.

3. Make sure all key APIs are updated and working properly. APIs are critical to the function of e-commerce sites, as they enable the customer-facing applications. If an API supporting payment options on a site goes down, your whole operation grinds to a halt as nobody can pay for their purchases until that API is working again.

4. Reduce the “page weight” of your site to ensure faster load times. Page weight is how much data is loaded on the browser of a visitor, and a heavy page weight means slow-loading pages. One of the easiest ways to reduce page weight is to reduce the number of images and/or graphics on the page.

5. Make sure your servers are scalable. The major site outage on Amazon Prime Day this year was directly related to overloaded servers. Moreover, load testing servers is simple and not very time-consuming. Larger retailers should always have extra server resources available on standby.

Still Lots of Shopping Done the Week Before Christmas

According to Hitwise, two of the top 10 online buying days of the 2017 holiday season occurred within a week of Christmas. Moreover, the final week before Christmas represented 12% of online retailer visits and 14% of transactions for the season.

This means retailers may need to retool their marketing initiatives as Christmas draws closer, highlighting this year’s “hot” toys or games that they still have in stock. Retail industry analysts point out that the top retailers all make great efforts to extend their shipping cut-off dates for as long as possible for holiday shopping. Given that most shipping processes already run on tight deadlines, the time from when a shopper makes her purchase to when the order is shipped is “golden,” and finding ways to reduce that time can help you extend your shipping cut-off-date.

Given the positive early sales data from Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2018, it appears that the retail industry took the problems plaguing the 2017 shopping season to heart, as there were no major problems reported during the four-day period. This is especially impressive given online sales in the 2018 holiday shopping season are projected to be up at least 10% from last year’s record-setting sales figures.

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