How online retailers prepare for Black Friday
It’s hard to believe that Black Friday was relatively unheard of in the UK as recently as 2013.
Like many retailers that year, we were caught off-guard by the huge numbers of customers and orders on Very.co.uk and Littlewoods.com. We struggled to keep the websites up during the busiest times.
By Black Friday 2014, we’d migrated our eCommerce sites to the public cloud to give us greater scalability and make it easier to cope with spikes in traffic. Yet we still had to implement a traffic management system, placing customers in a queue to avoid over-loading the platform.
It was the wake-up call we needed about how big Black Friday was becoming.
Today we see more than four times as many orders on Black Friday compared to normal trading days and twice as many orders as the next busiest day in our peak Christmas season. In 2018, we handled an average of almost 300 orders every minute on Black Friday.
It’s therefore vital that we have a tech strategy capable of delivering the very best customer experience throughout this key event in the retail calendar.
Our strategy is led by a team of in-house tech experts and external partners such as AWS, IBM and Akamai. They review the performance of our applications and infrastructure during the previous year’s Black Friday campaign and optimise them throughout the year to enhance performance.
We constantly test the front and back end of our websites and native apps by simulating Black Friday traffic, so we can be certain that changes made at any time are capable of handling the busiest day of the year.
In fact, our testing system ensures that all of our tech platforms are capable of sustaining at least twice the expected volume of Black Friday traffic. We want to know what our limits are and then push them even further to identify bottlenecks before they impact customer experience.
As Black Friday approaches, we scale up the number of servers running our websites, meaning more traffic can be handled and at a faster pace. By learning lessons from previous years, we’ve developed defensive layers to protect website stability.
These include the ability to reduce pressure on systems by temporarily switching off some features in the event of particularly high traffic spikes, for example after email marketing drops or promotional notifications on our apps.
By the time our campaign launches, we’ve transformed a meeting space within our headquarters into our Black Friday nerve centre. Representatives from all of our in-house tech teams and external partners are stationed there 24/7, with digital screens displaying vital performance monitors and metrics around the clock.
From the nerve centre, we link to our offshore teams in India and South Africa via Skype and carry out regular health checks on our numerous tech platforms.
As a business, we take a collaborative approach to Black Friday planning and are clear on the primary goals of every team involved, like retail and marketing as well as tech. Our trading and product teams operate their own Black Friday hubs throughout the campaign, and we make sure there’s a tech expert stationed in each of those to maximise communication.
For any retailer with an online presence, ensuring their tech is fighting fit is essential for Black Friday success. This means taking a year-round approach to planning and testing, collaborating with other teams in the business and analysing customer behaviour and performance from previous years to identify and prioritise improvements.
Our experience shows that there will almost always be unexpected issues, but in-depth preparation means you’re in great shape to tackle them head on.