Three web merchants share with Digital Commerce 360 how they’re preparing for an influx of online shoppers for the holidays after learning from past issues and from the pandemic driving more people online.

Two years ago, luxury men’s apparel retailer EQVVS.co.uk struggled during Black Friday. Its servers simply could not handle the amount of traffic coming to its site at the time. Therefore, the site went down and customers saw an error page, preventing them from ordering, which cost the retailer sales, says Lauren Devlin, digital marketing executive for the retailer.

Its site was down for the majority of the afternoon on Black Friday 2018. The retailer didn’t anticipate the crash, so it had to work quickly with its web hosts and developers to get it running again. It took a few hours for EQVVS.com.uk to begin taking orders once more.

To prevent this issue from happening in the future, EQVVS increased its server capacity to double the amount of traffic it usually receives so it can handle the spikes in traffic no matter the time of year. The site receives about 60,000 visits on average per month, according to 2020 traffic data from SimilarWeb.

“We vowed to never let that happen again by improving server capacity and speed,” Devlin says.

EQVVS is a U.K.-based retailer that has been operating online since 2014 when it launched its first website. The retailer has grown exponentially, especially over the last four years, Devlin says, without revealing more.

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EQVVS isn’t the only retailer prepping for holiday sales. Web-only candle retailer Fernweh Editions has been busy preparing its site for Black Friday sales and the upcoming holidays after it had issues last year. A critical application it used on its ecommerce site went down the morning of Black Friday and caused the site not to function for about an hour, says founder Larissa Pickens.

Ahead of Black Friday, FernwehEditions.com plans to remove any unnecessary apps that it has on its platform that could cause it to crash or slow the site’s speed and plans to perform regular load testing to monitor its page speeds and ensure its site images are optimized. “Having an unprepared site means you miss out on the most profitable time of year for most ecommerce businesses,” Pickens says.

The holiday season is crucial to many retailers’ long-term success, which is why any website outage can carry outsized implications like lost sales, fewer conversions and higher bounce rates.

In a survey of 105 retailers conducted by Digital Commerce 360 in February 2020, 44% said improving site loading time was critical to improving conversion rates. Plus, an upgraded site experience that included performance had the biggest impact on how the 2019 holiday season went for the 105 retailers surveyed. But 30% of retailers said that improving the user experience is their biggest 2020 obstacle, while 43% said their goal for 2020 was improving the user experience.

“Monitoring one’s website and ensuring it keeps pace with the industry is essential for growth given its impact on where consumers buy,” says Lauren Freedman, senior consumer insights analyst with Digital Commerce 360.

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The pandemic’s impact on the holidays

Many retailers start planning and testing their site’s performance in August to prep for the holidays, but the coronavirus pandemic pushed them to plan earlier, according to website monitoring company Catchpoint survey of 100 retail IT managers July 13-17. In the survey, 58% began planning and testing earlier due to COVID-19, 26% started planning later than usual and 16% say the coronavirus has had no impact.

Additionally, 97% of respondents said their peak holiday traffic is higher than their usual non-holiday traffic. So, ensuring their sites are performing efficiently and loading quickly is imperative because a spike in holiday traffic creates a number of issues for retailers.

Plus, the pandemic has pushed more shoppers online, as consumers opt to avoid indoor spaces and many retailers closed for a few weeks in March and April. Going forward, many retailers anticipate more online sales during the holiday season than ever before—especially as retailers like Walmart Inc. (No. 3 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000) and The Home Depot Inc. (No. 5) plan to close their retail stores on Thanksgiving Day, which could drive more shoppers online.

When the pandemic hit the U.K. in mid-March, EQVVS had to temporarily close its physical stores, which resulted in a massive increase in online activity. It has had up to 150% year-over-year increases in revenue some weeks when its stores were closed, Devlin says without giving date details.

Because it increased its server capacity after Black Friday 2018 and can anticipate high amounts of traffic, the retailer had been able to manage its site traffic levels very well, Devlin says.

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With Black Friday coming soon, the retailer spoke with its developers last week to confirm that its site will be able to handle the amount of traffic it anticipates. “We are confident we will be able to handle Black Friday 2020,” Devlin says.

And considering the pandemic is an ongoing issue, EQVVS predicts 200% or more of an increase in online sales in Q4 2020 compared with last year’s Q4.

Online bidet retailer Bio Bidet experienced a similar increase in demand for its products online during the toilet paper shortages when the pandemic first struck and due to consumers’ increase in hygiene awareness, says chief marketing officer James Amburgey.

“The recent surge of bidet awareness brought more visitors to our site than ever before,” he says.

During the initial months of the pandemic (March through May), BioBidet.com had online sales increases of more than 400%. And then overall for the year, Bio Bidet has had a 100% year-over-year increase in sales this year so far compared with 2019.

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To accommodate the surge in visitors and traffic, Bio Bidet upgraded its ecommerce platform to Shopify Plus and optimized some of its site assets to decrease page load times, Amburgey says.

Bio Bidet expects to continue to see “unprecedented sales during what is typically the peak shopping season,” he says. In an effort to better accommodate a socially distanced shopping experience, Bio Bidet plans to promote holiday deals ahead of Black Friday in the first week of November.

“Given the recent adjustments and optimizations we’ve made, we’re confident that our site will handle the holiday season,” Amburgey says.

Fernweh Editions also is expecting a strong Q4 for its online sales, Pickens says without revealing specifics.

“It’s been a tough year and people want a reason to celebrate,” Pickens says. “That said, many people are still hesitant to shop in stores so the trend towards buying online will be even more amplified this year.”

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