‘Tis The Season: Black Friday E-Commerce Readiness Checklist

Branwell Moffat

You may be thinking that Black Friday is ages away but, believe me, it will be here sooner than you think, and businesses should start preparing for it now. In the United Kingdom, Black Friday is not just a day any more. It is at least a week, normally starting on the Tuesday before and ending on Cyber Monday (the following Monday). I have seen many retailers then extend it by a further day to a full eight days of heavy promotion.

This period can make or break a year for a retailer. We have clients that will take up to £10 million of online orders over this period, which is a significant percentage of their annual online revenue. Getting Black Friday right can pay huge dividends for a retailer, whereas getting it wrong can be a very costly mistake.

Being a veteran of a number of Black Fridays, and bearing some of the scars, I have seen both successes and failures, so here is my Black Friday readiness checklist for retailers:

Performance

Over Black Friday, a Web site is likely to see a huge spike in sustained traffic; often four to five times the usual level. A Web site running slowly can have a big impact on conversion rate, but peak traffic at this time has the potential to completely take a Web site down. A web platform can very quickly become overloaded and go from fast and performant to offline in a very short space of time. There is often a very small window in between. There have been plenty of instances of the Web site of large retailers, such as Currys PC World, Argos, and John Lewis, that have gone down or had serious issues on Black Friday over the last few years. This resulted in many millions of lost sales and the associated cost of that.

It is vitally important that you test your web platform’s performance well in advance of Black Friday to give you enough time to fix any issues you find. Performance of a web platform does not tend to degrade in a linear way; it simply goes from fast to down in a very short space of time. This often is because the front-end servers or the database become overloaded and everything cascades very quickly. You can think of it as a bit like a bucket overflowing or a pipe that is too small for the flow of water. Once capacity is reached, everything starts to overflow.

Performance testing can be complex and costly, and you will ideally use a third-party performance testing company like NCC Group to manage this for you. You can do it yourself by writing tests using a tool such as Jmeter and then running them through a service such as Blazemeter. Although this is a much more hands-on and technical approach than using a specialist company, you can still get some great benefits at a much lower cost. This is not an exact science, and running tests that mimic real users is very challenging. You will need to run three to four different scenarios at once, including different checkout journeys (delivery/click and collect) as well as standard browsing. You need to think of the journeys through your Web site that are likely to put the most load onto your platform and ensure that those are proportionally represented in your test scenarios.

The profile of traffic during this period is not what you would see throughout a normal day. On days like this, traffic is very spiky starting from around 06:00. Because performance testing is not an exact science, it is advised that you ensure that your tests achieve at least twice the amount of traffic and orders you expect to receive during Black Friday to give you enough margin for error and to counter the fact that you will never be able to truly mimic real user behavior.

Code freeze

E-commerce rarely stands still, so it is likely that you have a constant development roadmap for your Web site. It is tempting to continue releasing code to your platform right up until the day to ensure that you have the best functionality available. However, the closer you get to the period, the riskier a deployment becomes. Generally speaking, you should not be deploying code in November unless it is critical to do so. This will give you a few weeks to find any bugs or issues. The last thing you want is a critical issue that could impact the sales on heavy shopping days.

You also need to consider that your performance testing may find some issues that you need time to resolve. You should ideally carry out your performance testing after your code freeze so you need to make sure that there is a big enough window.

Security

Security is always important but never more so than during this period. Periods of high traffic are the perfect time to try to hack a Web site. During this time, your Web site will be inundated with requests, and it will be much harder to spot and react to malicious traffic events as they will be well camouflaged among the elevated traffic. Your focus will be on your Web-site sales on that crucial day, and you will be slower to spot or react to security issues.

Make sure you carry out regular penetration tests on your platform (at least every six months) and ideally use an application security testing tool, such as Nessus, on a regular basis.

Dispatch and delivery

Are you set up to cope with the huge spike in orders that you can expect during this time? Can your order management and dispatch processes and systems cope with five times the normal number of orders? You may need to bring additional staff into your warehouse for a week around this time. The last thing you want is to upset customers by delivering late.

Can your delivery partner cope in the days after Black Friday? Your customers are not really going to care whose fault it is if their orders are delivered late. Make sure you ask them about their capacity during this period. There have been cases in the past where a courier company has imploded in the days after Black Friday and let lots of customers down.

Returns

You can expect quite a spike in returns after Black Friday. Customers tend to get a bit carried away at this time and are likely to make a few rash purchases. Although there is little you can do to stop this, you will need to plan for a lot more returns than normal in the weeks following Black Friday. You are likely to be busy gearing up for Christmas, but it is important to still manage customer expectations post sale.

Customer services

You can expect an influx of customer service queries during the Black Friday period. Everything from reports of promotion codes not working to questions about products and stores. You should consider increasing your customer services capacity before and immediately after this period.

Performance of third-party systems

Most e-commerce Web sites rely on multiple third-party services to function. These may be postcode lookups, payment gateways, search merchandising providers, or reviews. During the Black Friday period, these services are under a lot of load, and I have seen them take big Web sites down. You can spend a lot of time ensuring your web platform can perform well under load only for it to be crippled by a critical third-party service that can’t cope. Before Black Friday, ensure that you have audited your third-party services and asked them about their plans for this period. Ideally you will decouple your platform from these services so that your Web site can still function when they are down. However, this may not be possible. Last year we had a client whose third-party postcode lookup service went down on Black Friday. When they called the provider’s support line, the technician didn’t even know that it was Black Friday.

Competition

What is your competition doing over this period? Everyone is competing for the same customers, and you may not want to be the only one in your peer group that has not joined in. Maybe you have only planned to participate on the actual day, whereas your competition is discounting over the entire week. Do your research and look at what your competitors did last year, as they are likely to repeat it this time.

Pricing

This is a very tricky thing to get right. The discount needs to be attractive, but it will hit your margins. You don’t want to be discounting much less than your competitors, and you don’t want to give away margin unnecessarily. In the U.K., we tend to see discounts of between 20% and 30% on full-priced items. Some retailers will also offer free shipping. Often a retailer will offer a lower discount from the Tuesday before and then an additional discount on the Friday itself.

In store

Let’s not forget, Black Friday is not just about online. We all remember pictures of people fighting over cheap TVs in supermarkets a few years ago. We now live in an omnichannel world where consumers do not view retailers in silos. They expect to be able bounce seamlessly between different channels and have the same experience however they interact with you. Your customers will expect your Black Friday discounts to be the same online and in store, so it is important to coordinate your different channels.

For more on winning the online sales game, see Primed: Prompting Customers to Buy.


Branwell Moffat

About Branwell Moffat

Branwell Moffat is the e-Commerce director of Envoy Digital, an award-winning SAP gold partner and systems integrator in London, UK. He’s a highly technical e-commerce solutions expert and business manager, with over 18 years experience helping companies grow their e-commerce and omni-commerce businesses to levels of individual revenues in excess of £100 million per year.