Shoppers flock to retail websites during the holidays, and the added traffic can lead to site slowdowns or crashes. Retailers should plan how to deal with traffic spikes before they occur, when they can make decisions calmly.

Manuel Alvarez, senior enterprise architect, Akamai

Manuel Alvarez, senior enterprise architect, Akamai

The surest way to invite website disaster during the holiday shopping season is to assume it cannot and will not happen. Preparing for a crisis or disaster is an uncomfortable experience for retailer web teams—especially after spending so many months preparing, fortifying and optimizing the site infrastructure for the seas of seasonal shoppers. But those who fail to plan for crisis may find the initial delight of seeing visits spike turn to fear when the site slows or even crashes under the weight

Even the best estimates can falter in the face of reality.

of the extra traffic.

Reaping success out of a potential catastrophe depends on making hard decisions, such as reducing site functionality temporarily. After months of building a perfect website for customers, it can be heartbreaking to pare it down, but it is less heartbreaking than watching the whole site fail. These are extreme measures, but they can save the holiday season for retailers when the biggest sales numbers of the year are in the balance. The trick is understanding what functionality to adjust and when to do it.

The scope of the disaster

Marketing teams spend months of hard work, sweat and tears to make sure a lot of shoppers come to the site in search of holiday shopping deals. Unfortunately, large volumes of traffic can put a major strain on the site’s origin servers, even if well prepared.

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As a baseline, communication between marketing and web teams is entirely critical. Marketing teams can often generate very accurate estimates of the number of site visitors for a particular event, allowing web teams to make sure they have the processing power to serve every customer. And they can set an extra cushion range in the even that site visits exceed expectations. But even the best estimates can falter in the face of reality.

When the number of shoppers exceeds all expectations, their interactions on the website can add up to more than the servers can handle. When this happens, the site interactions can slow to a crawl or stop altogether.

Research shows that webpage abandonment spikes by 103 percent after a mere two seconds of loading. During the hypercompetitive holiday shopping season, e-commerce sites cannot afford to lose customers because of website hiccups.

Building the fortifications

Ensuring optimal speeds despite these drastic situations requires a lot of advanced planning. Salvaging website performance in the midst of these situations may mean making sacrifices. It is always better to decide how to proceed with a clear head, which is easier to come by before a crisis occurs instead of after.

The first step is to conduct rigorous site testing against a number of different scenarios. This will help determine which sections of the site are the most likely to fold under pressure. It is also important to discuss any added capacity needs with technology service providers to make sure they know the size and time of the anticipated spike over their platforms. They may even have solutions to help ease the burden of added traffic such as edge caching, which saves copies of certain website content (e.g. images) in multiple regions around the world close to the end user. This reduces the number of requests on the main servers and speeds up response times for the end user. Do everything in your power to avoid disaster before it happens.

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Another important action to take is determining the key priorities for the season. Is there a particular product line that is important to sell? Or is there a particular class of customer that is important to reach this season?

Once retail marketing teams know what their priorities are for the season, they can go to their web teams to figure out how to optimize performance and user experience, even when it means sacrificing other products or customers during a crisis. These are uncomfortable scenarios to be planning for but anticipating them and finding the right response ahead of time is the key to making it through.

When crisis strikes

In the direst of circumstances, preserving site performance and availability may come down to choosing between shutting down sections of the site temporarily and not targeting customers. For example, executives at a retail company on Black Friday may be most eager to push shopping for sporting goods. In the unlikely event that web traffic exceeded the capacity of their infrastructure, they may decide to shut down the fitness and diet section in order to save bandwidth and processing power.

Or, if they are focused on serving their most loyal customers, they may decide to temporarily serve only logged-in customers while putting everyone else into a virtual waiting room until the issue is addressed. Other options include suspending specific services from third parties or functions that are unnecessary for the conversion process such as signing up for mailing lists or mobile alerts.

Owning up to errors 

The important consideration throughout the whole process is to ensure you are treating end users with respect. A crisis is a crisis because it doesn’t happen every day. When it is over, the retailer still wants shoppers to come back once the site is operating at full capacity again. The first key is open and transparent communication. The web team probably doesn’t want to detail the full specifications for their proprietary IT infrastructure, but sharing as much information as possible and giving sincere apologies goes a long way.

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Retailers may also want to consider offering coupon codes that extend limited time promotions to affected customers that visited the site to take advantage of that deal. Showing customers that you care about them and giving them incentives to come back goes a long way to earning back their trust.

Any risk manager will tell you: the expected impact factors in the potential damage as much as the likelihood of the event occurring. Having a disaster recovery plan and being prepared for a crisis is the only way to make sure an e-commerce site stays online and makes the most of the holiday season.

Akamai provides content delivery network services to 354 of the Top 1000 online retailers in North America.

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