The Thanksgiving dishes had barely been cleared away before the onslaught began, as a horde of clicking, surfing, and spending consumers descended on retailers’ websites in record-breaking droves.
At Compuware, a vendor of cloud-based application performance management systems, analysts watched the madness unfold. The company’s experts were bracing for retailer meltdowns—slowdowns, glitches or full-on e-commerce systems crashes. Such problems were a feature of the 2011 post-Thanksgiving days from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, so it seemed inevitable that it would happen again.
But then… nothing. A few hiccups, probably not even noticeable to the consumers doing the buying. But otherwise, smooth operations for retailers raking in the cash.
“I am astounded, more than anything else, that it’s been so quiet,” said Stephen Pierzchala, Compuware APM technology strategist. “It’s been a big weekend, and nobody has been running into any problems.”
Analysts say retailers can claim a big victory, but encourage them not to rest on their laurels—there is, of course, still work to be done.
For instance, both Pierzchala of Compuware and Lelah Manz, chief strategist for e-commerce with content delivery company Akamai, noted that retailers need be wary of third-party entities that interact with their core website—such as store-locator finders, tax calculators, customer satisfaction survey links or even Facebook and Twitter buttons.
Compuware detected problems with third-party providers, and anecdotal reports about third-party issues creating slowdowns for retailers’ sites trickled into Akamai during Cyber Monday as well, Manz said. But overall, she added, the day was smooth sailing for retailers’ e-commerce systems.
That’s a particularly notable feat considering just how many consumers fired up their computers, tablets and smartphones during the holiday buying bonanza, especially on Cyber Monday.
Akamai saw a record-breaking 8.5 million page-views per minute at its retailers’ evening peak of 9 p.m. IBM reported a 30 percent increase in purchases for 2012 compared to 2011, though the company does not release dollar figures associated with its estimates. Compuware tracked purchases at between 24 and 27 percent above the previous year, calling traffic “incredibly high.”
Analysts at Compuware attribute the lack of problems to retailers’ extreme levels of preparedness. Indeed, the calm on Monday sends a signal to retailers that perhaps their IT organizations can afford to make them more efficient.
Retailers have proven that their pages can handle huge jumps in traffic, Pierzchala said, so now it’s time to question whether they actually over-invested. They should ask themselves whether they scaled their pages efficiently and economically, and whether they can take a step back.
A lot of sites could be scaling their pages to run more efficiently and faster without spending quite as much on hardware or adding extra services from third parties, he added. That’s one lesson retailers can take away from the past few days.
This year’s experience is a marked contrast from 2011, when Compuware’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday surveys showed slowdowns and periodic outages. Compuware used a consumer satisfaction index to score how retailers fared on Black Friday and Cyber Monday last year, and showed that the top 50 retailers’ indices fell 11 percent and 12.77 percent, respectively, as glitches delayed purchases and browsing on those days.
But “preparation” appears to be the name of the game this year. Retailers can do load-testing to assess whether their systems are ready for major traffic, but the third-party slowdowns—the one snag this time around—is actually tougher to test for.
It’s a simple matter to rev up traffic on a core site and see how it reacts, Manz said, but third-party providers support a number of websites at once. While you’re doing a load-test on your own site, the third-parties might react just fine. But that won’t prepare for days when every website is off-the-charts busy and those providers are stretched in dozens or hundreds of different directions.
And if they give out, Manz said, every site they connect to may also give out. She referenced a Facebook blackout in late May, for instance, where some websites that merely had a Facebook button entirely shut down—that tiny piece of their operation jammed up the whole system.
Retailers can help problem by ordering their pages to load third-party features last, she noted, so the page itself functions even while those details are temporarily busted. But retailers are also going to simply demand more accountability from third-party providers to prevent potential failures.
A Breakout Year for Mobile Shoppers
While retailers’ core websites might call for some analysis, this year proved that mobile is not to be ignored, either.
Mobile buying had its breakout year, with 18 percent of web purchases coming through smartphones, according to IBM. Compared to their figures from Cyber Monday 2011, that’s a 70 percent increase in purchases.
Jay Henderson, strategy director for IBM Smarter Commerce, attributed the burst of mobile activity in part to customers’ increasing comfort with using the phones. But retailers deserve some of the credit, he said, because they made smart moves toward improving the mobile experience for their customers, such as streamlined menus.
Some retailers were also creative in integrating the smartphone experience into in-store shopping—they made apps that gave store maps or price comparisons, something to aid consumers’ physical shopping experience as well, Henderson said.
Examples are everywhere as retailers appeared eager to cater to mobile shoppers. In November, Macy’s added a new shopping app for Android and Apple mobile devices that helps users find deals. Target’s updated mobile app let users scan barcodes or QR codes, or even purchase items from the app – the items are then shipped home for free. Other retailers including Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and Sears all released updates for their smartphone and tablet shopping apps.
Compuware’s survey of retailers also showed a major bump in mobile traffic, specifically on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, which saw a 250 percent traffic increase—including all traffic, not just purchases—compared to those days for the year previously.
While most online shopping still took place on desktops or laptops, mobile’s spike has caught everyone’s attention. Now, retailers need to focus on making mobile experiences better—smoother, simplified optimization that is also nimble enough to handle increased traffic.
“I don’t think companies have started to use mobile to its full effectiveness,” Pierzchala said. “I’m quite looking forward to see how the industry reacts to that over the next eight months.”
Laura Schreier, a freelance writer based in Boston, can be reached at email@example.com.