Get IT ready to protect your site from Cyber Monday meltdown

Monday marks the start of the busiest shopping period of the year as consumers rush to get ready for Christmas. Cyber Monday and the weeks following it will see record numbers of shoppers rush online with the IMRG (Interactive Media in Retail Group) predicting UK sales will hit £7.75bn during the five-week shopping month of December.

This sudden surge in traffic is likely to place considerable strain on these websites which could see slowed response times or even complete outages. Consequently, any deterioration in website performance increases the risk of lost sales, as shoppers go elsewhere to purchase their Christmas gifts.

Last year, retailers experienced hugely increased traffic with Cyber Monday alone bringing in £764,000 every minute. However, some high profile e-tail sites failed to handle the increase. For example, clothing retailer Guess suffered 46 outages and 310 minutes of downtime on its site.

There have been similar issues at peak periods throughout this year – most recently the fashion retailer H&M saw its site crash repeatedly when a new clothing line was launched. In the current climate, no retailer can afford downtime that will cost them hundreds of thousands of pounds.

While Cyber Monday has historically been the busiest online shopping day of the year, coinciding with the public’s final pay packet before Christmas, this event is now spread over several days.

This means a period of sustained pressure with several significant peaks over the coming weeks. In a challenging retail environment, e-commerce has been a beacon of light with an 11.5% increase in online sales in October 2011, compared to the previous year.

In order to sustain and grow this trend, retailers now need to ensure their online stores reflect the same high quality experience shoppers expect on the high street during busy periods.

A traffic surge will pose a challenge to even the most experienced of online retailers. However, there is no reason why increased traffic should cause a site to actually crash. Website management has developed to the point where incidents such as these can be better predicted and are easier to prepare for.

Before the Christmas rush hits, e-commerce sites should be tested to ensure a maximum capacity is understood. Tests will flag any problems and retailers can take steps to ensure things run smoothly when the real traffic hits. If they get their website right, they will no doubt enjoy a hugely successful December.

But it is vital retailers take steps to make this the case. If e-commerce goes wrong, it will invariably lead to frustrated customers abandoning poorly performing sites and walking into the arms of the competition.

To help retailers ensure good website performance continues throughout the Christmas period, we’d suggest the below steps. These will go some way to ensuring retailers come away from the Christmas rush with the sales figures they are expecting.

  • Know your users: Different browsers and devices download website content in different ways. For optimal web performance, retailers should try to learn their customers’ online habits, including their preferred browsers and devices.
  • Optimise what counts: Focus on the load times of the most critical revenue-generating transactions and pages. Focus on improving perceived load time (how long it takes for "above the fold" images and text at the top of the page, to appear) versus raw load time (the time it takes for all page elements to appear, including those elements that aren’t immediately visible to visitors).
  • Test performance from the end-user perspective: Load testing before your site comes under pressure will pinpoint any potential problems before they have an impact. The only way to do this kind of testing well, is to do it from the end-user / consumer’s perspective
  • Correlate web performance to business impact: These combined metrics can be crucial in executive-level support for web performance improvement initiatives. For example, Microsoft’s Bing found a 2-second slowdown reduced customer satisfaction by 3.8% and revenue per user by 4.3%.
  • Leverage industry benchmarks: These benchmarks combine data from millions of performance points across hundreds of websites to provide a comprehensive snapshot of industry leaders’ web performance. Use this valuable information to determine how your web experience stacks up.

David Flower is vice president EMEA – APM at Compuware.

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