Handling Holiday Stress

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Retailers spend countless hours planning and executing strategies to lure shoppers to their sites during the holiday season. However, all too often websites suffer critical problems—such as system overloads and checkout page malfunctions—in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Not surprisingly, such issues can deter shoppers from making a purchase and even lead them to a competitor.

“Merchants don’t want to get everything ready for the holidays only to have their site crash on critical shopping days,” said Lauren Freedman, president of Chicago-based e-tailing group Inc. “Just as consumers should get their car checked out before the winter hits, retailers need to make sure their sites can handle the traffic flux of the holidays.”

In response, smart retailers are performing preholiday diagnostic tests to detect problems early on.

“It’s critical to test a site’s performance to make sure peak volume can be reached with no or limited impact to the customers,” said Darl Crick, chief technology officer of Santa Clara, Calif.-based CrossView, a provider of cross-channel shopping solutions. “The core issue at hand is that retailers haven’t done a good enough job keeping up with performance methodologies, and this needs to change.”

One of the most common problems seen during the highly trafficked online-shopping season is that pages start to load significantly slower. Regardless of the time of year, a page should load in less than two seconds, and order flow should take a maximum of three to five seconds, Crick said.

“The faster a customer can complete an order, the more likely [he or she is] to make a purchase,” he said. “Plus, sites that don’t load or load slowly defuse customer confidence.”

To create a more seamless experience, retailers should evaluate how many bytes of information are presented on a page, the number of images it has and how many requests are going back to the server. (The more on a page, the longer it takes to load). Performance tools like Firebug or IBM Page Detailer allow Web content providers to measure the elements that make up a Web page, Crick said.

There are many red flags retailers can be aware of that could potentially predict—and help avoid—a major site issue. For example, Crick advises to keep an eye on the central processing unit (CPU), which carries out the instructions of a computer program, after a release of new code, which is an application that the customer is running and the source code associated with it. If the system’s usage escalates outside of normal ranges when the site is only experiencing its normal volume of traffic and orders, the site could run into trouble during the peak season.

Merchants should also monitor how many customer service calls are coming in. If there are more than normal, this may mean the system could be having problems.

“If any system problems do occur, retailers need to have the right tools and processes in place to quickly debug and resolve the problems,” Crick said, adding that some tools let retailers set up alerts that inform site managers of changes that may indicate issues.

“Companies should also back up their site when preparing for peak shopping periods,” Crick said. “Plan for the unexpected. Not only does this help with minimizing risk and disaster recovery, it will also help with root-cause analysis should problems occur.”

In fact, backups should be done on a daily basis. “

This is a simple concept that is often forgotten,” Crick said. “It’s an easy and key part of the process though because it confirms it’s possible to restore systems in case of an emergency.”

However, maintaining a seamless site should not just be part of the holiday wish list. Retailers should continue to test their sites throughout the year.

“There is a direct tie between site performance and sales, so doing regular diagnostic tests will not only show a return on investment, it will also keep customers loyal and ready to buy,” Crick said.

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