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How did ecommerce retailers cope with Black Friday demand this year?

Black Friday is now an established part of the UK’s retail psychology. No longer just a ‘US import’, it has been running for several years and retailers are investing more resource in planning than ever before. Partner agencies have also ramped up support levels, with war rooms established to keep a detailed focus on site performance and minimise the risk of performance issues.

So how did retail sites perform under duress this year? Was there a repeat of major site downtimes that have become synonymous with Black Friday?

This blog take a quick look at some of the key dynamics over the weekend.

The numbers are up but only slightly…

I’ve seen lots of conflicting numbers, but the consistent theme is mobile grew substantially. PCA Predict’s own data shows 26% increase in checkout traffic to mobile devices with a 43% purchase share. Formisimo reported that mobile increase from 8.4% to 23.1% of checkout traffic, and total traffic to mobile and tablet devices was much higher than 2015, although desktop shrank.

The chart below shows ecommerce traffic volumes aggregated across PCA Predict’s client base – you can see the impact the Black Friday weekend has had over the past four years:

What’s interesting is that the data I’ve seen suggesting a decrease in total traffic for Black Friday vs. 2015 also reveals a big leap in conversion rate:

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Source: Formisimo, Black Friday 2016 – Checkout Conversion Statistics

In the UK, some retailers reported big spikes. Argos claimed 500k visits to the website in the first hour of online trading on Black Friday morning (midnight to 1am) – up 50% vs. 2015.

The biggest jump in traffic was between 3-4am, which had a 66% year on year increase. So people are going online early to try and bag the best deals, which means retailers need to be on constant guard for performance monitoring.

Site stability has improved

Site crash horror stories were few and far between this year. It looks like retailers have finally got their act together and sorted out the infrastructural issues that plagued big brands last year.

This is partly down to better planning (some have invested in Black Friday mission control teams to micro manage trading throughout the day) and better technical rigour (more capacity, faster response from technical partners).

I asked people on our Twitter chat #EcomChat if they’d seen any hugh profile site meltdowns, but only Quidco was mentioned. The common view was that retailers were better prepared, using a range of tactics to help spread demands over a longer time period to reduce the risk of bottlenecks (both on site and in the order management and fulfilment flow).

Big brands still affected

Even though performance was generally much better this year, there were a few big brands who fell foul of the traffic onslaught, notably cash back site Quidco. This inevitably led to social backlash and lots of frustrated customers not wanting to miss out on rewards for shopping through Quidco links.

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The Currys PC World site also got a little twitchy; with UK customers reporting slow loading pages and timeouts. As one of the main electrical discount destinations, this also led to criticism on social media and no doubt a loss of potential sales.

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Fulfilment issues are last year’s news

Last year there were several high profile retailers pilloried in the news, and on social networks, for failed deliveries and significant delays during the weekend. This year, the press has been surprisingly void of similar stories.

Amazon tried something smart – it offered a free movie/audio book credit to Prime customers in exchange for them accepting a longer lead-time for orders. So providing something free in return for easing congestion in the order management and shipping queues.

So it looks like retailers have been cannier in preparing their order management and fulfilment systems/processes, and planning campaigns to minimise bottlenecks.

Summary

Retailers were better prepared this year and have clearly learned from the sins of the past. Here are some key reasons:

Many extended the sales period to the full week (starting on Monday), to stretch traffic across a wide time period e.g. Amazon promoted ’35 days of deals’

  1. Some sites stopped SEO crawling validation to reduce server load
  2. More sites are using CDNs to help distribute the server load
  3. Retailers reducing emphasis on same/next day deliver to try and reduce demand for ‘instant’ fulfilment
  4. Smaller retailers using digital coupons to encourage people to shop in-store
  5. Stores ramped up their staffing for click and collect points (supermarkets increased shopper assistance) to make stores a more attractive proposition
  6. General delivery times pushed back in advance of the sales period to set expectations

Comments and questions

So what was your experience of retail ecommerce over the Black Friday weekend? Did you notice any site downtime? Did you experience delivery woes?

Please drop by and share your comments, questions and experience.