The holiday shopping season is upon us. For online retailers, the most severe tests—Black Friday and Cyber Monday—have come and gone, though online traffic is expected to remain high. On the whole, the big retailers handled the tremendous traffic spikes with ease, says Stephen Pierzchala, Technology Strategist with application performance management specialist Compuware APM.
But Pierzchala notes that two trends are clear. First, while retailers fared well, their third-party providers struggled. Second, retailers that expect to succeed going forward better have a mobile strategy.
According to comScore, online spending on Cyber Monday reached $1.465 billion, making it the biggest online spending day in history.
"When compared with an already busy online weekend, Cyber Monday was again big this year," Pierzchala says. "This is reflected by an increase in traffic to sites monitored for the Compuware Ecommerce and Retail Real User Measurement Index on Cyber Monday, with traffic volumes that were up 75 percent over Thanksgiving Day and 30 percent over Black Friday."
Third-Party Service Providers Struggle with the Load
Pierzchala says sites were ready for the traffic this year. Despite record numbers of visitors to online retailers, no major retailer suffered a significant online outage. When they did have issues, the issues resulted from third-party providers—companies offering services ranging from analytics to advertising to customer service&8212;struggling with the load, rather than the host sites themselves.
"There have been no big meltdowns or explosions; it's actually been remarkably quiet, which points to high levels of preparedness," Pierzchala says. "The rubber has been hitting the road rather well. Most sites have gotten a pretty good grip out there. The only issues that we've seen out there so far have been the third-party services that a lot of these retailers have come to rely on. We're seeing everything from extremely long server response times to connection issues. And we're seeing at least one or two services where issues are occurring on multiple sites."
Mobile Traffic Up 250 Percent
Sites also saw a dramatic increase in mobile traffic this year. Compuware reported single-day traffic increases for mobile greater than 250 percent on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Mobile traffic volumes on Cyber Monday were slightly lower than those on Black Friday, but substantially higher than retailer sites experienced during the previous week.
"The really big thing that businesses need to bring to the table when they start thinking about planning for next year is the fact that on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, mobile traffic went up by 250 percent," Pierzchala says. "People are spending real money on mobile devices now and when you're looking at areas of growth and areas of potential benefit in the future, that's something you're going to have to really focus on."
Start Planning Your Load Testing Now
If your site failed the test, or even if it merely struggled at times, the time to start planning for next year is rapidly approaching. As Pierzchala notes, even a small hit to performance can cost you sales.
"It doesn't really matter what you think is fast," he says. "If you don't match up with what your customers expectations of performance are, they will go someplace else. You have to understand what your customers' expectations are. This is not a technology issue. The whole business needs to be involved in the process and understand what's at stake."
The first step to preparing is running a very effective load test, Pierzchala says.
"Prevention is far better than emergency medicine," he says. "A lot of companies do testing starting as early as January and February. Load testing picks up again in July, August and September, so they've got time to test, find problems, repair and test again. You have to make sure everyone can sign off on the infrastructure, design and load issues that they expect to see."
"It has to be realistic," he stresses. "It has to be based on what your customers do on your site. It has to be from the perspective of your customers. If you don't test the entire site as it's going to be show to them, you're going to miss something. It's important to think about how the customers are coming in: what device, what browser? Where are they coming from?"
That testing has to include the third-party services running on your site. If they can't scale up to meet the demand, they can drag the performance of your entire site down. He notes that if you can't guarantee a service can handle the expected load, maybe you should consider scaling back the complexity of your site for Black Friday and Cyber Monday; you may lose some of the richness of your site, but you'll be better able to absorb the traffic.
Thor Olavsrud covers IT Security, Big Data, Open Source, Microsoft Tools and Servers for CIO.com. Follow Thor on Twitter @ThorOlavsrud. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Thor at firstname.lastname@example.org