Digital Christmas In July – Now is the time to prepare your e-commerce site for the 2017 festive season

By Tobias Dreyschultze, Senior Performance Engineer at digital performance intelligence company Catchpoint Systems.

With the temperatures rising it's difficult to believe that Christmas is just around the corner. However, for UK retailers this is the start of their festive season as they're already starting preparations for a shopping period that accounts for 20% to 40% of their annual sales.

To set the scene, top UK retailers like John Lewis will be hosting "Christmas in July" events to reveal their festive collections.

But are retailers backing their commercial Christmas set-pieces and store decorations with robust digital strategies to respond to the changing customer habits? If they are not, now is the right time for them to prepare their eCommerce sites for the consumer rush around Christmas and ensure success around the business.

Digital Christmas 2017 is very likely build on the big trends of last Digital Christmas. For example, people are now doing the majority of their Christmas shopping on smartphones – according to IMRG, 54% of all spend on mobile devices came through smartphones in December 2016, leaving 46% for tablets. The statistics themselves point to the importance of having a well-performing ecommerce site, because if you don't customers will abandon your site and go to your competitors.

Tobias Dreyschultze, Senior Performance Engineer at digital performance intelligence company Catchpoint Systems, shares his four top tips on how to prepare for the upcoming busy shopping period, so that retailers can ensure they have well-performing websites that will satisfy the customer demand.

#1 Use your Real User Monitoring (RUM) and synthetic data
Use the RUM data from your past Christmas results to get an insight on the performance of the real user and to find out how users were engaging with your site. The RUM data can give you valuable information on which part of your website is important for your user (e.g. pages which are most relevant for your business metrics) which can give you an idea on where your IT engineers should focus on. If you haven't performed real user monitoring in December, my advice would be to start running synthetic tests from July. From the data from synthetic analysis you can find out what pages on your site are working well and this is a good first point of preparations for the busy festive shopping period.

#2 Have a strict third-party apps policy
The same way retailers decorate heavily their high street store windows, they tend to do the same for their ecommerce site by investing in additional content, such as third-party tags, SEO and videos. Many of these apps, including marketing analytics tool, are designed to create powerful online experiences. However, they can significantly affect how fast a page loads and contribute to a poor consumer experience that leads to a consumer clicking off a retail site early. Furthermore, as retailers compete to offer more compelling online experiences, their home and other key pages become heavier with rich media like embedded videos, social media and other interactive features. Overall, websites are getting fatter and take longer to load. For example, over the lunchtime on Black Friday 2016 itself, our analysis showed that the websites of two of the UK's biggest department stores took many more seconds to load than the industry average of 3-4 seconds. Upon investigation, this was attributed to poorly performing 3rd Party elements. When there are traffic surges, this can mean the site slows down to a crawl or there are minor or major outages.

Therefore, retailers need to analyse the additional content they invest in and ask themselves the question "What is the value of this service?".

#3 Evaluate your CDNs
Doing a comprehensive assessment of how well your infrastructure can absorb a digital customer surge is something that shouldn't be left to November. Retailers need to make sure their hosting provider, CDN provider, external DNS provider, or any third party they deal with can handle the expected high volume of traffic. They also need to evaluate how well CDNs are able to deal with DDoS attacks as there have already been cases of major digital services brought down by such attacks. So, can your third-party infrastructure absorb surges in requests well enough? Ask the right questions and ensure that the necessary optimisations have been made.

#4 Call for a Digital Experience Officer (governance)
Digital Christmas is a team effort but there's a concern that responsibilities can get blurred. One major issue is how the pressure from marketing for a richer online shopping experience can over-stuff a site with content and apps that will impair performance especially during a spike in traffic. Using July to hammer out a digital customer experience strategy underpinned by a commitment to test digital performance regularly is a vital step. Website performance is closely tied with customer experience and for this reason it is important that retailers have a thorough, comprehensive website and application monitoring strategy combined with powerful analytics to spot and respond to issues quickly and effectively.

According to the latest revenue reports, online is where retailers generate growth and volume sales, therefore, there are no excuses for poor online performance. It is crucial that retailers constantly monitor how customers are experiencing digital services in order to keep up with their growing demand and ensure their positive experience.

Catchpoint's latest study on consumer shopping behaviour commissioned in November-December 2016, shows that UK consumers are changing their preferences to not only shop less on the High Street but also on their desktop devices. For all consumer groups, it is vital to get the basics of delivering a fast and responsive digital retail experience right whether it's at the digital storefront (the home page) or at checkout. These parts of the online shopping site need to load quickly, respond fast and never crash.

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