Retailer Web Sites, Apps Brace for Black Friday

The shopping holiday season is heating up, and we’re about to hit the major black Friday and Cyber Monday peak. Never has uptime been more important and downtime more costly for retailers than during this season. Here's a look at key factors in retail performance, and how major players are preparing their infrastructure.

Jason Verge

November 21, 2012

5 Min Read
Retailer Web Sites, Apps Brace for Black Friday

The shopping holiday season is heating up, and we’re about to hit the major black Friday and Cyber Monday peak. Never has uptime been more important and downtime more costly for retailers than during this season. Downtime and performance degradation can be disastrous, as Yahoo Small Business learned in a 2007 Cyber Monday outage that knocked thousands of small business customers offline on a critical shopping day.

How are folks getting ready in the infrastructure world? What kind of data will we see on the holiday kickoff? Data Center Knowledge will be checking in with a variety of players in the Internet infrastructure world for their take and view. Here’s a sample, with more to come as the holiday season goes on.

The Payment Platform: PayPal

As the leading online payment processing portal, PayPal has a unique window into e-commerce activity. What is it seeing? Holiday shopping is commencing earlier, and the volume of purchases via mobile devices is exploding.

Anuj Nayar, Senior Director of Communications, says PayPal has compelling data showing that the shopping season has already started, with some online shoppers getting started as early as Sept. 30. The National Retail Federation said 41.4 percent of Americans said they would start shopping before Halloween, and more than half have started by now.

Last year, PayPal talked about the growing trend of “couch commerce.” The 2011 kickoff weekend saw a big spike of people going from the dinner table to the couch to start their shopping from their mobile device – tablet or smartphone. On Thanksgiving last year, PayPal saw a massive 511% spike in mobile purchases alone.

A new survey from PayPal and comScore shows 62 percent of people said they’ll use their mobile device for holiday shopping, either to get price comparisons and product information or actually make a purchase. Why is PayPal all over this? The company is offering price matching for holiday purchases, so the eyeballs are good for it.

Here’s a refresh of what the company saw last year:

  • PayPal Mobile saw a six-fold (552%) increase in global mobile payment volume on Cyber Monday 2011 compared to Cyber Monday 2010.

  • There was a more than four-fold (397%) increase in the number of customers shopping through PayPal Mobile on Cyber Monday 2011 compared to last year.

  • Cyber Monday 2011 resulted in a 17% increase in global mobile payment volume compared to Black Friday 2011.

  • On Cyber Monday 2011, consumers shopped on mobile most frequently between 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. PST.

The Performance Monitor: Keynote

Keynote Systems is a leading player in web site performance monitoring, and will be closely tracking how all that mobile traffic is managed by retailers. “There’s a lot of hype within the e-commerce community that is starting to become a reality,” said Aaron Rudger, senior marketing manager over at Keynote. A key issue Keynote will be tracking is the response time, which is critical in e-commerce on any platform, but especially so in the mobile experience. Keynote says the difference between performance expectations and actual performance varies so greatly on mobile that it might lead to lower conversion rates than expected.

With stronger, faster smart phones and tablets, Keynote believes a "3 screen" monitoring strategy that tracks response time across desktops, tablets and smart phones is critical for retailers seeking high conversion rates. It will have additional metrics like time to "first paint" - the moment when images begin to appear on screen and the user knows the  site is responding. Keynote says the target for time to first pain is 250 milliseconds. E-commerce sites can also experience problems due to network latency and reliance on content from third parties such as payment processors and ad networks. For a smart phone user, page download time should be less than 4 seconds on smart phones and 3 seconds on tablets.

Also worth noting is their performance indices for key startups in travel, social retail, digital entertainment and more – all sites that will have their meddle tested this season. Keynote was all over the network performance monitoring during Sandy, which you can read about here.

The Data Center Providers: Savvis, Equinix

Managed hosting provider Savvis says holiday shopping preparations begin when they bring a customer on board and develop a service level agreement. The company works with the client upfront, identifying seasonal and peak moments throughout the year so that the customer's infrastructure can scale accordingly. There is a lot of planning leading up to those events.

That planning process looks at the past performance for the site, and the growth of the company. Savvis offers a web performance suite for its consumer facing site, which it has developed through a partnership with Compuware. The web performance suite provides end user experience monitoring across all devices, and application performance monitoring for a deep dive into how an app performs step by step.

The company noted that cloud in general plays really well into retail spikes, allowing for the aligning the cost with the business. Savvis has seen a number of its customers ship a portion of their workloads to cloud platforms for scalability. However, Kevin Conway, global director of consumer brands, said getting some e-commerce vendors onto cloud can be a challenge. Software licensing models haven't been condusive to using the cloud yet, with many choosing to own enough infrastructure to handle even peak holiday traffic.

Interconnection specialist Equinix also serves a substantial retailer clientele. It will offer instant test tools that track website performance and determine how they stack up against their competition. The company also touts its ability to offer colocation within close proximity of major population centers to reduce latency. Other steps that retailers can take to includes colocating their data center within the same facility as their ecosystem of key partners. Equinix also has an extensive partner network that retailers can leverage, such as using the cloud (cloud bursting) to handle sudden large amounts of sales activity. It can provide easy access to leading CDN providers to boost performance.

The CDN: Akamai

Many retailers rely on content delivery networks (CDNs) like Akamai Technologiesto keep their sites responsive during periods of heavy load. Some early data suggests 2012 has the potential for a record busy year. Akamai says traffic picked up 13 percent in the second weekend of November compared to the peak of the first weekend. This year, Akamai's Chief Strategist for Commerce Lelah Manz will be watching a variety of metrics, including:

  • Overall online traffic patterns including peak traffic times and days, through its Retail Net Usage Index

  • Shopping behavioral trends including those days shoppers are browsing versus buying

Last year, Akamai saw an interesting correlation between social and retail traffic.

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