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Black Friday Is Coming: Are Your Sites and Apps Ready?

How online retailers can make the most of the biggest e-commerce days of the year

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For most e-commerce retailers, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are two of the biggest shopping days of the year. In fact, from Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday, U.S. shoppers spent a whopping $24.2 billion in 2018, with Cyber Monday becoming the single largest online shopping day in U.S. history at $7.9 billion.

And according to the National Retail Federation (NRF), the online component of Black Friday continues to grow, with NRF estimating that 79% of 2018 Black Friday/Cyber Monday long-weekend shoppers were multichannel or online only (just 21% shopped only in stores). Tellingly, two thirds of all shoppers and almost 90% of shoppers under 35 used mobile devices to make their purchase decisions.

With numbers like that, there’s clearly a lot on the line during what’s now sometimes called Cyber Week, but success is hardly guaranteed. On Black Friday 2018, many large retailers suffered problems that drove shoppers to competitors, generating bad press and negative buzz on social media as well as potentially costing them millions of dollars in lost revenue—not to mention lasting brand damage.

So, how do you make sure you’re maximizing online and mobile sales during this peak season? Every retailer’s situation is unique, so the 10 best practices outlined here are not intended to serve as a full step-by-step walkthrough. Instead, they’re designed to offer ideas, inspiration, and motivation to make sure your company doesn’t leave money on the table on Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or whatever your biggest e-commerce days may be.

Tip #1: Create a plan well in advance

Map out your plan at least six weeks in advance of the big day, ideally earlier. What new features will you release? What bugs will you fix first? What type of tests will you run and when? You will also want to identify current baselines for performance and availability at the application, infrastructure, service, and frontend levels.

You should identify key performance indicators (KPIs) at each level, beginning with Apdex, error/crash rates, and throughput. You should also create and verify application/infrastructure maps as well as key transaction maps. Service owners should create and verify an incoming/outgoing call map. Similarly, mobile app owners should identify API calls to view internal and external dependencies.

Next, you need to set your goals and expectations for the big day. What are your availability goals? How much traffic do you expect to receive? How much cloud and infrastructure capacity do you need to put in place (both planned and dynamic) so you can scale to meet those expectations? Identify any existing or potential issues that could get in the way of meeting your goals.

With all this in mind, establish a timeline and document a detailed play-by-play for getting everything ready and have teams in place to cover the entire Black Friday/Cyber Monday long weekend. Make sure that resources are available around the clock and handoffs are scheduled in advance.

Tip #2: Set up your command center

As you solidify your plans, you need to assemble your cross-functional teams. Identify which team members from marketing, fulfillment, web and mobile operations, and other key functions will be involved, and assign clear roles and responsibilities to each person. Who will make the mission-critical decisions and course corrections? Who will execute which tasks? How and where will collaboration occur? Who’s in charge if incidents occur? Keep in mind that successfully navigating Black Friday and Cyber Monday is a team sport, so always think and act like a team.

Many companies choose to document these decisions in runbooks, which codifies the procedures for who does what, and when. To give your efforts a physical focus, you may want to set up a Network Operations Center (NOC) to house key team members, monitors with shared dashboards, and other resources.

In order to succeed, it’s essential to establish clear lines of communication. In a high-stakes period like Black Friday, timing is critical. Any slipup in your tactical execution could have devastating consequences for your business. For example, imagine what could happen if your team is already in high-alert mode due to heavy traffic hitting your site, but then without your knowledge the marketing team sends out millions of promotional emails to drive even more traffic. Avoid these types of fire drills by establishing clear lines of communication and transparency among all relevant departments.

Tip #3: Don’t try to do too much

It’s important to ensure you can actually execute on your plan, so your biggest days may not be the best time to roll out risky experiments or deal with unnecessary chaos. Be sure your plan lays out not only what you can do, but also what you can’t do. Proper instrumentation and visibility into your software and systems enables you to innovate more confidently, but there’s no need to be reckless about it. Of course, you don’t want to leave money on the table, but you really, really don’t want to break things on Black Friday.

That’s why many companies build a timeline that includes a feature/code freeze. In order to minimize last-minute surprises, you need to specify a hard date for when new features can no longer be incorporated into your systems and another date when any new code, even bug fixes, can no longer be checked in. This allows QA teams to confidently verify that key customer journeys avoid any roadblocks, and helps ensure you deliver the highest quality digital customer experience when it matters most.

Tip #4: Stay focused on the big picture

With millions of dollars potentially on the line and multiple things happening at once, how do you stay focused on what really matters: factors such as conversion rate, order counts, payment success rates, and Apdex for key transactions?  

Building and sharing real-time analytics dashboards gives everyone involved visibility into user flow and performance across web, mobile, and infrastructure by tracking key metrics and user satisfaction scores. You can create dashboards for business outcomes and order processes, and set up high-density views of how your apps and infrastructure are performing as well as the quality of the digital customer experience you’re delivering.   

These dashboards should be placed prominently in the NOC so that everyone is working from the same single source of truth and can quickly figure out if a leaky funnel is due to a site performance issue, a third-party service outage, or some other cause. (With the increasing popularity of microservices, monitoring third-party services is crucial when trying to evaluate the digital customer experience and identify the source of performance issues.)

Tip #5: Streamline the entire customer journey

Making the most of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and your biggest days isn’t just about app and infrastructure performance—you also want to optimize your customers’ buying journey. Streamline the order process by determining how easy it is for someone to complete the entire journey. Figure out how many steps are involved and if there is any way to reduce that number. Identify internal and partner ownership for all services involved in supporting every step of the process. Optimize availability, quality, and the overall digital customer experience.

Monitoring your digital customer experience is critical at every step of your buyer journey, but what does that mean in the real world? Here are some pointers:

  • Quantify every step of the customer experience. Using Apdex as a measure of customer satisfaction, you can determine the health of each part of the customer journey.
  • Get a real-time view of how actual customers are experiencing your digital experience.
  • Evaluate the overall performance of your funnel with KPIs such as add to bag rate, cart abandonment rate, registration rates, bounce rates overall and by page, and store- and product- page load times.

Tip # 6: Optimize the payment process

Great news! Your customer hit the “buy” button—now your job is done and it’s time to book the revenue, right? Sadly, no. In fact, you’re just getting started.

Both the payment step and the payment success rate are critical to your success on Black Friday. Even after a customer hits the purchase button, the transaction (along with your revenue) remains susceptible to payment gateway errors, payment processor errors, slow networks, buyer error, and a host of other issues. That’s why it makes sense to track the magnitude and ratio of both successful and failed orders over time to determine trends well in advance of the big days. Similarly, monitoring payment methods can help you identify which ones have the highest success rates—and then you can feature those options most prominently.

Look at it this way: Imagine if you were actually able to collect revenue from 100% of your customers’ purchase attempts on Black Friday. How much extra revenue would you book in just that one day?

New Relic APMNew Relic Browser, New Relic Mobile, and New Relic Insights can help you figure this out by exposing the “why” behind failed payments, making it easier to troubleshoot the issues and quickly improve your payment success rate.

Start by marking your checkout transaction as a key transaction leading up to Black Friday, and set an alert to notify you of any issues. If your payment provider can accept $0 transactions, test the checkout process at regular intervals using synthetic monitoring (see tip #7 below). The goal is to avoid hearing about problems via customer complaints on Twitter. Key metrics to track are payment success rate, payment gateway response time, and third-party payment provider response time.

Next, take a close look at your cart abandonment rate. How much of that is due to app performance problems versus other variables (such as issues with external payment providers or other third-party services)? With real-time performance dashboards powered by New Relic Insights, these questions can be answered right away and the problems quickly fixed.

Tip #7: Employ synthetic monitoring to catch problems early

Although the checkout process is usually most critical, you should proactively monitor all the transactions happening on your e-commerce site. The goal is to identify all those pesky bugs or slow database calls and make sure they’re all fixed well ahead of time. By displaying the data on a real-time dashboard (as discussed in tip #4) that maps your buyer journey, you can see where your customers are getting stuck or leaving during the process. Even more important, you can quickly drill down into the data to find out why the problems are happening.

What can you do to proactively optimize your website and ensure shoppers make it all the way through to purchase? Take advantage of synthetic monitoring to simulate user behavior and reveal any problems before they impact your customers. You can use New Relic Synthetics to run automated tests to find out where specific errors and slow pages are cropping up, so you can deliver a top-notch digital customer experience no matter where in the buyer journey your users are.

Tip #8: Test, analyze, repeat

All the planning and prep work in the world won’t help much if you haven’t made sure everything is working properly. Back in the planning stage (tip #1) you established baselines for key metrics and goals for how everything should go on the big days. Apart from waiting for Black Friday, the only way to find out if your command center and communication strategies are up to the task is to test them. That can mean everything from load testing—in which you simulate the traffic you expect during peak periods to test how well your technology and organizational systems will scale—to more advanced techniques such as adversarial game days and even chaos engineering.  

But that’s only one aspect of the testing process. In tip #5 we discussed how to streamline the buyer journey, but how do you know whether your changes are having a beneficial effect? With so much on the line, it makes sense to run A/B tests on different versions of your sites and apps to see which design features and functionality perform best. Does tagging products with a % savings or with a $ savings figure boost more sales? Is revenue most improved by lining up product images in a gallery on the left side of the page or at the bottom, or does the page placement not seem to impact revenue at all? (Keep in mind that some Black Friday shoppers may differ from your everyday customers in that they are primarily interested in snagging a great one-time deal. Consider this when designing your tests.)

Tip #9: Stay flexible

You can test and plan for every scenario you can imagine, but you never know what real shoppers will do when the big day finally arrives. For example, you may expect shopper traffic to thin out around 2 a.m. but a popular promotion or performance issues with a competitor’s site could cause your site to be flooded with users until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., which could cut into the window available to conduct routine housekeeping tasks.

All during Cyber Week, you want to continually assess KPIs and traffic trends to identify any opportunity for improvement. If it’s a choice between releasing that shiny new bit of functionality or fixing an underlying infrastructure problem that’s causing a half-second delay in response time, you probably want to save the value-add stuff for a quieter moment.

To be sure, it helps to define priorities ahead of time in the planning phase (see tip #1) rather than in the heat of the moment. What you choose to prioritize, of course, depends on your particular situation. Some companies prioritize anything that will capture more profit, whether that means uptime, conversion rates, or even high-margin products and high-value customers.

Ultimately, the key is to be prepared to cope with rapidly changing plans and priorities to keep things humming in real time when it matters most—to stay agile and resilient instead of locking down your systems so tightly that they become brittle, more likely to break, and more difficult to recover.

Tip #10: Set yourself up for future success

Just because you did everything right and enjoyed a super successful Black Friday and Cyber Monday doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels. You still need to maximize the rest of the holiday shopping season—and take advantage of other big days throughout the year. After all, online shoppers spent an estimated $122 billion during the 2018 Holiday shopping period (November and December), up more than 17% from 2017.

To leverage the lessons of Cyber Week, hold an evidence-based, blameless postmortem as soon as possible. Instead of relying on opinions and resorting to finger pointing, use your performance observability data to analyze what worked and what didn’t. Identify innovation and performance improvement goals, refine your processes, measure, and repeat.

Remember: E-commerce is a 365-days-a-year business. While there’s even more at stake during peak season, every day is critical for online retailers. Successful companies need a flexible, “always-on” approach to development, testing, and monitoring.

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