‘Tis the season: A Black Friday e-commerce checklist

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Black Friday isn’t just a day any more. It’s at least a week; normally starting on the Tuesday before and ending on Cyber Monday (the following Monday). I’ve seen many retailers then extend it by a further day to a full 8 days of heavy promotion, making a Black Friday e-commerce checklist even more crucial. You don’t want visitors to abandon their carts – which they will do if they’re unhappy with the CX provided.

This period can make or break a year for a retailer.

We have clients that will take up to £10m of online orders over this period which is a significant percentage of their annual online revenue. Getting black Friday right can pay huge dividends for a retailer, whereas getting it wrong can be a very costly mistake.

Being a veteran of a number of Black Fridays, and bearing some of the scars of mistakes, I’ve seen both successes and failures, so following is my Black Friday e-commerce checklist for retailers.

Black Friday e-commerce checklist: 10 things that make or break online holiday retail sales

There are ten items of particular importance when it comes to the Black Friday e-commerce checklist:

  1. Performance
  2. Code freeze
  3. Security
  4. Dispatch and delivery
  5. Returns
  6. Customer service
  7. 3rd party apps – and their performance
  8. Competition
  9. Pricing
  10. Omnichannel

1. Performance

Over Black Friday, a website is likely to see a huge spike in sustained traffic; often 4-5 times the usual level. A site running slowly can have a big impact on conversion rate, but peak traffic at this time has the potential to completely take a website down.

A web platform can very quickly become overloaded and go from fast and performant to offline in a very short space of time – there’s often a very small window in between.

There have been plenty of instances of the websites of large retailers, such as Currys PC World, Argos, and John Lewis that have gone down or had serious issues on Black Friday over the last few years. This will have resulted in many millions of lost sales and the associated cost of that.

It’s vitally important that you test your web platform’s performance well in advance of Black Friday to give you enough time to fix any issues you find.

Performance of a web platform does not tend to degrade in a linear way; it simply goes from fast to down in a very short space of time. This often is because the front end servers or the database become overloaded and everything cascades very quickly. Think of it as a bit like a bucket over flowing or a pipe that’s too small for the flow of water. Once capacity is reached, everything starts to overflow.

Performance testing can be complex and costly and you’ll ideally use a third party performance testing company to manage this for you.

You can do it yourself by writing tests, using a tool such as Jmeter, then running them through a service such as Blazemeter.

Although this is a much more hands-on and technical approach than using a specialist company, you can still get some great benefit at a much lower cost. This isn’t an exact science and running tests that mimic real users is very challenging.

You’ll need to run 3-4 different scenarios at once, including different checkout journeys (delivery/click and collect) as well as standard browsing. You need to think of the journeys through your websites that are likely to put the most load onto your platform and ensure that those are proportionally represented in your test scenarios.

The profile of traffic during this period is not what you would see throughout a normal day. On days like this, traffic is very spiky starting from around 06:00. Because performance testing is not an exact science, it is advised that you ensure that your tests achieve at least twice the amount of traffic and orders you expect to receive during Black Friday to give you enough margin for error and to counter the fact that you will never be able to truly mimic real user behavior.

2. Code freeze

E-commerce rarely stands still, so it’s likely that you have a constant development roadmap for your website. It is tempting to continue releasing code to your platform right up until the day to ensure that you have the best functionality available. However, the closer you get to the period, the more risky a deployment becomes.

Black Friday e-commerce checklist must: Generally speaking, you should not be deploying code in November unless it’s critical to do so. This gives you a few weeks to find any bugs – the last thing you want is a critical issue that could impact holiday sales.

You also need to consider that your performance testing may find some issues that you need time to resolve. You should ideally carry out your performance testing after your code freeze so you need to make sure that there is a big enough window.

3. Security

Security is always important, but never more so than during periods of high traffic, as it’s the perfect time to try to hack a website.

Black Friday typically means your website will be inundated with requests, making it much harder to spot and react to malicious traffic events, as they’ll be well-camouflaged amongst the elevated traffic.

Your focus will be on trading your website, making you will slower to spot or react to security issues.

Make sure that you carry out regular penetration tests on your platform (at least every 6 months), and ideally use an application security testing tool such as Nessus on a regular basis.

4. Dispatch and delivery: 3 questions to answer on your Black Friday e-commerce checklist

  1. Are you set to cope with the huge spike in orders expected during this time?
  2. Can your order management and dispatch processes and systems cope with 5 times the normal number of orders?
  3. Can your delivery partner cope in the days after Black Friday?

You may need to draft additional staff into your warehouse for a week around this time – the last thing you want is to upset customers by delivering late.

Your customers are really not going to care whose fault it is if their orders are delivered late. Make sure you ask your delivery partners about their capacity during the holiday period. There have been cases in the past where a courier company has imploded in the days after Black Friday, letting lots of customers down.

5. Returns

You can expect quite a spike in returns after Black Friday. Customers tend to get a bit carried away at this time and are likely to make a few rash purchases.

Although there is little you can do to stop this, you will need to plan for a lot more returns than normal in the weeks following Black Friday. You are likely to be busy gearing up for Christmas, but it’s important to still manage customer expectations post sale.

6. Customer service

Expect an influx of customer service queries on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Everything from reports of promotion codes not working to questions about products and stores will be likely, so you should consider increasing your customer services capacity before and immediately after this period.

7. Performance of 3rd party systems

Most e-commerce websites rely on multiple 3rd party services to function. These may be post-code lookups, payment gateways, search merchandising providers, or reviews.

During the Black Friday period, these services are under a lot of load, and I’ve seen them take down big websites.

You can spend a lot of time ensuring your web platform can perform well under load, only for it to be crippled by a critical 3rd party service that can’t cope.

Before Black Friday, ensure that you’ve audited your 3rd party services and asked them about their plans for this period.

Ideally you will de-couple your platform from these services so that your website can still function when they’re down. However, this may not be possible.

We had a client whose 3rd party post-code lookup service went down on Black Friday. When they called the provider’s support line, the technician didn’t even know it was Black Friday.

8. Competition

What is your competition doing over this period?

Everyone is competing for the same customers on Black Friday, so you need to understand what you’re up against before the holiday hits.

Maybe you’ve only planned to participate on the actual day, whereas your competition is discounting over the entire week. Do your research and look at what your competitors did the year prior, as they’re likely to repeat it.

9. Pricing: To discount or not to discount

Pricing is a very tricky thing to get right. Discounts need to be attractive, but will hit your margins.

You don’t want to be discounting much less than your competitors, and don’t want to give away margin unnecessarily. In the UK, we tend to see discounts of between 20% and 30% normally on full-priced items only.

Often a retailer will offer a lower discount from the Tuesday before and then an additional discount on the Friday itself.

10. Omnichannel: Seamless CX is a must when it comes to your Black Friday e-commerce checklist

Let’s not forget, Black Friday is not just about online sales.

We all remember pictures of people fighting over cheap TVs in supermarkets, but we now live in an omnichannel world where consumers do not view retailers in silos.

Customers expect to be able bounce seamlessly between different channels and have the same experience, no matter how or where they interact with you.

Your customers will expect your Black Friday discounts to be the same online and in-store, so it’s important that you co-ordinate your different channels.

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Branwell Moffat

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