The rise of ecommerce

The ease, convenience and speed of buying online meant that ecommerce was already on a roll long before the Covid-19 pandemic happened. But now, it looks as if lockdowns have accelerated this evolution: with ecommerce bridging the gap between consumption and safety.

Some sectors have reported record sales in spite of the pandemic. Publisher Bloomsbury (best known for the Harry Potter series) reported record sales of £100.7m in its August 2021 half year results. Its CEO attributed it partly to continued lockdown reading habits and the “phenomenal” impact of TikTok.

Even items previously regarded as being for “instore purchase only” are now routinely bought online. Research by industry-watcher Retail Economics indicates that 45% of consumers are now prepared to shop online for big-ticket items such as furniture.

At Christmas 2020 Royal Mail announced it was recruiting around 33,000 temporary staff (two-thirds more than usual) to handle the elevated parcel volumes expected due to an increase in online shopping.

These trends along with the increasing number of busy periods on the retail calendar means your website and apps have to be ready for periodic
spikes in traffic.

It’s not just about retail high days and holidays either. Any seasonal business has to cope with busy periods. When lockdown closures of garden centres in March 2020 coincided with the start of the growing season, horticultural company Suttons Seeds had to introduce a queuing system for entry onto its website.

Ad hoc events such as the sudden onset of adverse weather, or a consumer’s partner becoming absorbed in an important sporting fixture, can also spark an increase in online shopping.

Meanwhile, the rise in mobile commerce (m-commerce) is adding a new dimension, and extra pressure, to ecommerce operations.

Ecommerce isn’t a walk in the park

Clearly, current market conditions present any business in the ecommerce space with a huge opportunity. But it would be misleading to suggest that the unremitting rise in online spending makes ecommerce a walk in the park. Consumers are intent on bagging a bargain and getting the best possible deal in terms of service.

Furthermore, while online sales have skyrocketed, many online retailers aren’t equipped to handle sudden increases in traffic and sales, making common mistakes that damage their brand and put off shoppers for life.

Here are our recommendations for any ecommerce business preparing for a busy period.

Provide a seamless customer journey on all devices, browsers and operating systems

Your website or app may start out as a pillar of stability and usability, but it’s not preserved in aspic! Development tends to be an organic process, with new features and functionality being released throughout the year, often at speed.

If your website and or app becomes plagued with issues under the strain of maintaining frequent releases, you miss your selling window and simply drive shoppers to other online retailers. They may even take to the airwaves and voice their opinions publicly on social media or review websites such as Trustpilot, which could risk your brand reputation.

Regular testing for functionality and usability is best practice. It will check how the end-to-end user journey behaves and highlight where it’s not as joined-up as it should be.

Functional testing will check your website or app across a broad range of devices, browsers and operating systems (there are at least 63,000 combinations of them according to Browserstack) to ensure that it provides the optimum user experience.

As there is an overwhelming combination of screen sizes, devices and operating systems to consider, we recommend testing on as many
device variations as possible to cover the largest proportion of users.

Ride the wave of m-commerce

The mechanics of buying online have rapidly changed. In 2020, Paypal reported that almost three quarters of UK shoppers use mobile devices for purchases and payments.

The mobile commerce trend is fuelled by developments such as bigger screens and biometrics. It was gathering momentum even before Covid-19 and now looks set to become the norm. With payment options built into phones, impulse buying has never been easier. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the impact of m-commerce.

Woman holding phone and credit card

Offer all ways to pay

Google Pay, Apple Pay, PayPal and Paypal Credit, Amazon Pay, Klarna… there’s been a revolution in payment platforms, many coming with their own ‘wallets’. This is on top of all the traditional payment methods, such as numerous credit/debit card options.

Your website or app must accept all the most popular online payment platforms, otherwise, in a changing payment landscape, you’ll lose conversions just as customers are ready to press the ‘buy now’ button. There will be countless other retailers out there who can accommodate your prospects’ preferences.

Build in ample scalability

You’ll need to test that your systems can take heightened pressure during the busy times. Where are the weak points? Will your website
slow down or, even worse, crash completely under the strain?

Do a load test, and extrapolate from that to assess the impact of a larger load and how your systems would perform in the face of explosive

Don’t overpromise

Whether it’s the opening minutes of Black Friday or the launch of a new product, it’s likely that your ecommerce operation will experience a ‘power hour’ when traffic on your website or app will be at its peak. For example, the Xbox Series X preorders sold out in hours! In some cases, we’re
talking about ‘power seconds’, with demand being completely frontloaded.

How do you ensure your website or app can cope with being hammered during this short, sharp surge in traffic? You may have planned in extra cloud capacity that can flex with demand, but will all your functionality and features behave as expected when they’re being hit by thousands, or millions, of customers simultaneously?

In the millisecond between a customer viewing an item marked as being in stock and adding it to their basket, a product may disappear from the shelves. You’ve raised hopes only to dash them.

And how do you offer a graceful solution if the customer misses the boat? Again, testing the customer journey helps in formulating alternatives: offering the ability to pre-order and be first in line when new stock comes in perhaps, or suggesting sensible alternatives.

A leading toy company experienced 50,000 hits in the first 20 seconds of launching the latest must-have action figure.

Digivante helped them to manage the customer journey to avoid disappointing customers and their offspring! No payments were taken until it could be categorically confirmed rhat the toy was indeed still available to buy.

Minimise changes to your website or app

We strongly advise that you consider a code freeze some weeks in advance of any major online shopping event. The danger is that if you release new code during the countdown, this introduces defects, which then require a patch even closer to the “Big Day”. All this impacts the stability of your website or app when it’s under pressure.

Working backwards, draw a line in the sand, after which only “must-have priority #1 changes” are made to the live production environment. Your app or website can then be tested post-implementation to check that the last release is sound and will perform well when you need it to. Some of our clients code freeze as early as the August before Black Friday. At the very latest we’d advise a code freeze two weeks before Black Friday in preparation for the peak shopping period. Any other releases should then be confined to the test environment for the duration.

Plan for the worst

What happens if, despite all your best efforts, your website or app crashes? It’s not only sales on the day that suffer; your reputation could be permanently tarnished, with a knock-on effect on future sales. Consumers are not a very forgiving bunch: in its future of CX report, PwC surveyed 15,000 consumers and found that 1 in 3 customers will leave a brand they love after just one bad experience.

What’s your strategy for averting disaster?

Ask yourself:

  • Do we have a backup and recovery protocol with defined service level agreements?
  • Have we modelled what disaster looks like, with different worst-case scenarios?
  • Have we scheduled key people to be available during the expected spike in demand to react quickly to problems as they start to emerge?
  • Do we have support mechanisms in place for frustrated customers (such as FAQs or a chatbot) or do we leave them to work out for themselves that there’s a problem?
  • Is our communication strategy and social media response prepped and ready to go if a significant problem occurs?

In 2019, Currys PC World was hit by a Black Friday blackout as their website ‘crashed’ and left shoppers furious They complained of website crashes, long loading times and incorrect prices. A spokesperson said the site experienced temporary issues due to high levels of demand.

Early prep is key

The key to managing peak periods is to prepare early and follow the recommended steps to ensure website and app resilience. Then, if despite all your planning, the unexpected does happen, make sure you have a service recovery plan too.

Ensure, also, that you send out timely restock alerts and keep customers informed throughout. It’s the not knowing that customers find unacceptable.

If something stops the conversion, make sure you have abandoned basket trigger emails at the ready for when normal service is resumed, with a possible discount for any inconvenience. Activate a queuing system if your site cannot cope with load and have your customer service team standing by. Users will expect to enjoy a streamlined experience whatever device or browser they’re using, whatever their level of technical competence and confidence in purchasing online.

Failure to prepare for peak could result in hefty financial losses and reputational damage, and worse, driving your customers into the arms of a
competitor who can deliver a better experience.

Here at Digivante we can help ensure your ecommerce site delivers great customer experiences which convert into online sales using our broad suite of testing and analytics services. Contact us to find out more.