A Year-Round Plan for Mastering Holiday and Peak Web Performance Hurdles
March 01, 2023

Guillaume Moigneu

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While there is no denying the surge of traffic that the holiday shopping peak — especially Black Friday — generates for retailers, some shopper behavior patterns may be worth noting for other major spikes in online shopping throughout the year, such as Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day and more. One growing trend that has picked up speed over the past couple years is an expanded shopping timeframe for consumers in advance of the holiday season, perhaps driven by supply issues and shipping delays, among other factors. In 2022, for example, retailers were launching Black Friday holiday sales as early as October, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

The challenge for brands lies in creating a web strategy that can scale website performance and manage the surges and spikes throughout the year appropriately, with the fluctuating and, at times, earlier than expected demand. Many organizations find a push and pull between marketing and technology departments as they strive to roll out promotions in an organized fashion and meet the demands for last minute adjustments. To prepare for these peaks throughout the year, retail brands find themselves accelerating their plans to handle the anticipated spikes in web traffic before each holiday.

Sharp spikes in web traffic and associated transactions place a heavy burden on retailers' web development teams. This burden that is felt by technology teams highlights the need for a well-planned and coordinated marketing and website management strategy that is efficient in both time and resources then becomes a year-round journey, not something saved for year-end or when fire drills occur. Here are three ways companies can master each holiday and other peak performance hurdles:

1. Look for opportunities to optimize code performance and reduce energy use

With every campaign, and even on regular shopping days throughout the year, retailers aim to deliver a shopping experience that leads to higher conversions and sales. A direct factor that impacts the shopping experience is website performance, including loading time of both the website and apps. Nothing is more frustrating for an online shopper than to wait for a page to load, with glitchy, slow loading pages, which sometimes result in cart abandonment. Therefore, it is critical to evaluate ways to handle extreme loads.

Luckily, there have been advancements in technology that allow developers to optimize the performance of their websites and apps by showing where specific code can be altered to improve load times and SEO results. Optimizing performance also can save energy, as the more data transferred also results in higher energy consumption. More and more companies are also investigating static site generation as a way to publish easy to scale static content for part or all their websites.

2. Only pay for the capacity you need by scaling seasonally or on-demand

One challenge that retailers face is the need to pay for large server capacity when they need it, but they often then end up paying for that same level throughout the year when they don't need those same server capacities. During high traffic shopping events their websites must be able to handle extremely large visits per second.

As mentioned previously, page load times are directly connected to the customer experience a brand is delivering to shoppers. Companies must ensure their environments are properly sized prior to peak times. While companies hosting their own servers can keep capacity on hand for peak times of demand, some smaller brands that don't have this luxury face economic risks by not having enough capacity at the crucial moment, leading to servers that collapse under the load.

The fallout of being over prepared year-round is that 60% to 80% of the capacity is not used in off peak times. This large investment in hardware and resources for operation and maintenance, as well as energy costs, are becoming increasingly significant. One option to avoid the high costs incurred for capacity that isn't always required is to partner with platform providers. Retailers can then scale as needed, collaborating on development, scaling and management of apps, usage, and utilization can be even better managed and optimized.

3. Find harmony across your organization and consolidate web applications and programs

Retailers' marketing promotions often need to be revised mid-campaign due to unforeseen circumstances. This might come in the form of competitive factors or product inventory issues, for example, if a product is no longer in stock. At the same time, website and web app administrators feel responsible for flawless performance during peak traffic events to eliminate the potential for interruptions or bottlenecks. One common tactic retailers deploy is a "code freeze" strategy to enforce a cut off time on website updates; however, this makes last minute adjustments, including new campaign roll-outs, almost impossible. Using platforms to develop and scale websites enables faster response times, ensuring that web managers can react to modifications without much effort — even at the last minute.

Web platforms also support the consolidation and the development and management of websites and apps on a central platform for increased transparency. And provide additional benefits for monitoring and automating routine processes, which in turn also brings valuable insights. For example, functions based on artificial intelligence (AI) can support managers and administrators in monitoring the applications, identifying performance problems, and even implementing immediate fixes. Streamlining often time-consuming processes means retailers can focus on the front end, including delivering an engaging shopping experience to their customers instead of the infrastructure.

Retailers would be prudent to put in the time and energy into creating a plan now that will improve customer shopping experiences while also creating operational efficiencies with real business benefits. The effort to create harmony between marketing and infrastructure goals should be a year-round journey, one in which the lens is on a wide picture of what is needed to create an optimal shopping experience but also in order to leverage key shopping periods throughout the year.

Guillaume Moigneu is VP of Product at Platform.sh
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