Preparing the IT Infrastructure for the Holiday Shopping Season
October 01, 2015

Krishnan Badrinarayanan
Riverbed Technology

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If the sight of moping children everywhere doesn't give away the fact that a new school year has begun, the spike in retail shopping by their parents certainly does. Back-to-school shopping has become big business, but it's just the first test before the final exam: the holiday shopping season. Every year, the number of consumers who shop online rises, and that traffic increase invariably leads to crashing web sites, unhappy customers and lost sales. Application performance directly impacts business performance. Providing high-performing applications 24/7 is critical, but that is easier said than done with complex applications that must work in environments spanning the cloud, middleware, third-party services and diverse networks. Effectively managing application performance requires broad and deep visibility across all of this, and your preparations for the crush of the holiday shopping season should begin today.

The back-to-school shopping season should provide a good barometer for whether your IT infrastructure is ready. The National Retail Federation (NRF) reports the average spending on back-to-school has grown 42 percent in the past 10 years. The average family with children in K-12 will spend about $630.00, for a total of nearly $25 billion. Most of that spending will occur just one to two weeks before school starts, and more than one-third of people will shop online. The NRF also finds that of those online shoppers, nearly half will take advantage of retailers' buy online, pick up in store or ship to store options.

The holiday shopping season will dwarf those numbers, so it's no wonder that most retailers count on holiday sales to put them in the black for the entire year. Consumers are increasingly shopping online, but there is no longer a clear line between the person who shops online at home (or work), and the one who prefers to visit brick-and-mortar stores. Thanks to the smartphone, one person can do both. According to Custora, 26 percent of e-commerce sales came from mobile devices between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday last year, a 20 percent increase over the same period in 2013. It's so easy to browse the aisles while surfing the web and using apps to compare prices and selections, all the while posting their happiness or dissatisfaction to their and retailers' social media networks.

The amount of traffic that hits retailers' websites during the holiday season can cause issues for even the largest retailers. On Black Friday 2013, Wal-Mart's website drew nearly 400 million page views, and experienced periodic outages that frustrated customers who tried to purchase items that were part of a special promotion. Walmart quickly addressed its e-commerce site issues and extended the sale prices for several days.

Best Buy in 2014 attributed Black Friday outages, including one that lasted more than two hours, to record levels of website traffic. CNBC reported that the outages generated a "litany of customer complaints that engulfed the retailer's Facebook and Twitter feeds." Best Buy did address the issues and did not suffer additional outages through the weekend and on Cyber Monday. The company's customer service representatives were also very active on its social media platforms, answering customers' questions and complaints. Channel Advisor, which tracks same-store sales for thousands of retailers, said despite the likelihood of lost sales, Best Buy's online sales rose more than 16 percent compared to 2013.

Credit goes to the Walmart and BestBuy IT organizations for quickly identifying and solving the issues, and they were not the only retailers to experience online outages. These high-profile incidents should serve as a warning to all retailers this year. E-Commerce traffic will increase, more shoppers will use their mobile devices, and even short outages can significantly impact customer service and satisfaction levels. If an IT organization cannot monitor its applications, infrastructure and user experience in real-time, it will always be playing defense, reacting to problems after they arise instead of anticipating and addressing them before they do.

More often than not, the chief obstacle to achieving this broad and deep visibility is not a technology issue, it's an organizational one. As the IT environment has grown more complex, the IT department has become increasingly siloed. Different teams and personnel focus on very specific parts of the IT infrastructure, which prevents any of them from having a real-time view of the entire infrastructure.

Breaking down these silos is hard. Enterprises should implement technology that catalyzes collaboration across IT groups, and delivers an end-to-end approach to managing application performance that enables IT to become more proactive in addressing issues.

The key is to roll out real-time analytics that provide holistic monitoring and diagnostic capabilities. This will enable IT operations, support, development, and lines of business to:

■ Monitor user experience, applications, infrastructure, and key business transactions from one dashboard, thereby never missing a performance problem.

■ Recreate the scene of the crime, using simple workflows to quickly diagnose problems, and arm the right team with the information they need to eliminate the root cause. 

■ Proactively improve performance, by querying and analyzing billions of transactions to expose and fix bugs before they lead to outages. 

In the end, two combined factors will make the 2015 holiday shopping season more demanding than ever for IT organizations: the certain increase in online traffic to e-commerce sites, including more shoppers who use their mobile devices; and the increasing complexity of today's IT environments. Providing the entire IT organization and other key business unit leaders with a comprehensive, real-time view of application and infrastructure performance, and end-user experience, will enable retailers to better prepare for holiday crush and avoid performance slowdowns and outages that can turn a successful season into a money-losing one.

Krishnan Badrinarayanan is Sr. Product Marketing Manager at Riverbed Technology.

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