Beating the Black Friday blow out

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Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 27 seconds

Were you a part of the online shopping frenzy on Black Friday? I was and I know many consumers suffered problems with websites going down or being unavailable.  By way of inspiration, I thought I would take a look at some industry research which showcased website availability (or lack of) in the UK and then highlight a few clear steps to demonstrate how retailers can avoid a website going down during major retail events.

Black Friday was widely reported on this year as shoppers opted for online over in store shopping. As Britons spent 1.1 billion pounds shopping online, an increase of 36 percent on the previous year, unprepared websites suffered.

However, according to TrafficDefender’s live leaderboard, between midnight and 6am on Black Friday a number of online retailers had already experienced issues with availability.

The web traffic management and queuing system expert watched the likes of Schuh and Pretty Little Thing experience periods of unavailability in the early, pre-office hours, but they quickly recovered. By mid-morning technical difficulties had settled down and most site’s traffic levels evened out.

As expected, traffic levels peaked again around lunchtime and into early evening, affecting even top online retailers such as John Lewis. River Island also got into a bit of trouble immediately after its deals went live due to the unprecedented volumes of website traffic.

John Lewis

So when even the experts can’t predict the impact of Black Friday, how does a website prepare for traffic levels like this?

It’s all about scalability. With most online retailers living in the fear of a repeat episode of Black Friday 2014, most had put in the preparation ahead of time.

In contrast to previous years, TrafficDefender monitored a consistently high level of traffic throughout the day rather than massive spikes, indicating that marketing and IT departments were working more closely together to flatten out demand.

Whilst it may seem like an obvious thing to do, many online retailers invested heavily in scaling up their infrastructure, however, it’s still won’t help to avoid traffic driven outages.

Unless a website or application is built for the cloud then scaling infrastructure typically delivers proportionally diminishing returns in capacity, plus it’s totally impossible to accurately estimate the size of the infrastructure required in events like Black Friday when there’s no way to know the level of traffic that’s going to hit.

Experts in this area talk about ‘Performance by Design’ which is the idea that to achieve fast, robust and reliable systems, performance must be built into websites from the earliest stage. According performance experts Intechnica, what successful online retailers need to do to prevent slow downs and outages in these peak times is to build a website specifically for the cloud, with the infrastructure to take on large amounts of traffic. However, the cost to a business of putting this extra infrastructure in place can make it hard to be profitable during sale periods when margins are already tight.

This year, as an alternative, retailers such as Tesco, and Argos were able to stay online and trading thanks to the use of a queue. Queuing works alongside a website’s existing capacity management to divert any excess visitors to a first in, first out queue whilst the site in question deals with as many visitors as it is actually capable of handling. Clearly infinitely scalable infrastructure would be the ideal solution but the sheer cost of this makes it price prohibitive. Queuing therefore is a very sensible solution and something that consumers seem more than happy to do, given the circumstances. This ensured that certain websites continued to function even when the volume of traffic was exceeding the levels that the infrastructure can normally handle.

queue

It’s not all bad news for those sites that went down. Clearly those companies who suffered website issues on Black Friday have a good marketing strategy in place and the surge in traffic is the sign of a good retailer. It’s a nice problem to have, but measures can be taken to mitigate this kind of risk for the future.

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James Crawford is an award winning B2B and consumer PR practitioner and has worked with at some of the biggest PR agencies in the UK. He focuses on using reputation and ecommerce metrics to track the ROI of PR.

State of Digital

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Was Black Friday 2015 a Complete Bust for Retailers?

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Each November, retailers prepare for the rush of holiday shoppers, with Black Friday bargains being the starting line to the holiday shopping season, and 2015 wasn’t any different. Retailers like Best Buy, Target, and Walmart released their Black Friday deals ahead of time, with hopes of drawing lines of people who would need to be barricaded outside of the store before the mad rush.

But was it all for nothing?Black Friday shopping

According to Reuters, early data shows that Black Friday shopping numbers came up short for a lot of major stores, including Best Buy and Walmart, while Target did see an increase due to its marketing and promotion efforts.

The general consensus is that stores and malls were less crowded than in years past.

Part of the reason for this is because some stores opened earlier than ever before this year—Target opened its doors at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day while Best Buy started at 5 p.m. Because of that, many shoppers were able to secure all of their bargains before the clock even struck midnight. Now, we can debate all day about if its right to take employees away from their families on Thanksgiving to work a retail job, but the fact of the matter is that many big box retailers took value away from Black Friday by starting their deals early.

It should be noted that this year’s holiday shopping numbers are following the same trend as 2014, with the four-day Thanksgiving weekend starting off slow before seeing a surge in the final ten days of December, according to Reuters.

Dangers of Black Friday Shopping

Another reason for the decline in retail store’s traffic could be due to the dangers of Black Friday shopping, and 2015 wasn’t any different than previous years. If you’ve ever seen the movie Jingle All The Way, then you know what I’m talking about. If not, check out this video by Twitter user yung wifi showing a brawl at Mall St. Matthews in Louisville, KY on Thanksgiving.

This New York Daily News article highlights only a small percentage of fights recorded during Black Friday shopping.

Online Sales Up

The biggest reason for the decrease in foot traffic? Online sales.

U.S. shoppers spent $ 822 million in online shopping between midnight and 11 a.m. EST this year, which was a 15% increase from last year but still a lower mark than the originally-projected 19% growth mark, according to the Adobe Digital Index, which tracked 180 million visits to more than 4,500 U.S. retail websites. Online sales did rise 22% from midnight to 5 p.m. EST on Thanksgiving, which may show that launching online deals before Black Friday could be the right strategy moving forward. 

For what it’s worth, there were some great Black Friday deals this year:

  • $ 700 off a 60-inch Samsung TV at Best Buy
  • 20% off a $ 75 purchase at Target
  • $ 100 gift card with the purchase of an Apple Watch at Target
  • $ 100 off an iPad Air 2 at Walmart
  • $ 49.99 for a Kindle on Amazon.com

Overall, the National Retail Federation is expecting holiday sales to increase 3.7% in 2015, which would be lower than last year’s 4.1% growth rate, largely due to dormant wages and slow job growth in the U.S. this year.

One thing that can’t be denied is the fact that online shopping will continue to dominate the Black Friday landscape, and Cyber Monday will continue to drive more revenue for eCommerce brands and online retailers.

Images via Shutterstock

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