A last minute sense check: is your ecommerce site ready for peak trading?

Mintel predicts that 13% of all retail sales will take place online this Christmas and online spending will top £13bn for the first time according to Sage Pay, an 18% increase from last year.

“With record online spending predicted for Christmas 2014, it’s never been more important for small businesses to be online. Most larger retailers are already preparing themselves for Christmas, and if independent merchants want to capitalise on consumers’ confidence, they need to follow suit and begin preparing too.” Simon Black, chief executive of Sage Pay

The online peak for Christmas has been getting later in recent years, influenced by improved delivery options and the rise of click and collect that runs up to Christmas Eve for many multi-channel retailers. Now is the last chance saloon to sense check that all your ducks are in a row ready for the seasonal frenzy. This blog gives a hit list of key items to review and make sure you’re well organised. Please note this isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s intended to provoke discussion.


There’s no excuse for poor planning. We all know when Christmas is, so we should put measures in place to handle the traffic surge that is coming. This involves working across the business to ensure the systems, processes and people are in place to manage customer demand. This doesn’t mean creating an overly complicated plan, it requires the discussion of potential trading scenarios, deciding  how to cover them and mitigating potential risks e.g. if the website goes down on Christmas Day, what remote monitoring flags this, to whom and what is the response time and escalation process.

Here’s my ‘top 5’ things to do:

  1. Plan for the worst-case scenarios – what if the web server crashes on Christmas Day, what’s the plan to get it back up and running? Do you have a holding page to manage customer expectations?
  2. Get sale ready – make sure the products, pricing and pages are ready, reviewed and approved and can be turned on at the flick of a switch
  3. Mobile share of traffic is increasing year-on-year (some retailers I know have nearly 50% of all traffic from mobile devices) – is the mobile site working properly across all browsers and devices?
  4. Web-to-store orders jump – make sure all teams are prepared for this, including store teams to cope with extra volume of people coming to store expecting to pick up their order quickly
  5. Make sure you’ve got your reporting dashboards set-up for real-time analysis of KPIs – at Christmas you need to be responding quickly to changes (I’m mildly addicted to GA’s real time reports)Sense Check

Image: screenshot of GA Real-Time report for Traffic Sources from a test account

Customer service

During the peak season, the volume of inbound enquiries usually increases significantly, for example a surge after Christmas Day of enquiries about refunds and returns. Capacity planning is essential, ensuring you have both cover for the holidays and additional resource to cater for customer demand.

A good example is accelerating response times for Twitter. People expect social media to be an instant fix, far more so that more traditional channels like email. This demands constant monitoring and, for large organisations with a big customer base, this often means multiple people working as a team to handle reponses. As Christopher Radcliffe points out in his Econsultancy blog, the @hyattconcierge account engages directly with customers and most replies arrive in less than 10 minutes.

Here’s my ‘top 5’ things to do:

  1. Improve the delivery service e.g. increase next day cut-off times
  2. Consider increasing the returns period to reflect gift purchase cycles
  3. Make sure your delivery & returns policy information is crystal clear and has been updated to reflect Christmas (on product as well as policy pages) – hugely important for gift purchases so people know what they can do if the gift isn’t loved
  4. Use (or add) a USP bar in the global navigation to promote key messages such as delivery cut off dates & returns policy
  5. Increase cover for email/phone/web chat/social media – you don’t want to let people down when a quick response is essential. For peak, you have to respond in minutes ideally, not hours and certainly not days.

Site performance

This is the time of the year to indulge your inner geek. Get excited by performance monitoring tools and charts. Discover the beauty of minimising TTFB (time to first byte) and compressing everything that can be compressed. Every second counts, as it should all year round, but patience is reduced when people are busy hunting for gifts.

Here’s my ‘top 5’ things to do:

  1. Load test your servers and find the tipping point so you can simulate the impact of traffic spikes; if there are problems, work with your IT team to make improvements e.g. database tuning
  2. If you’re virtualised, make sure you’ve got hot scaling so it takes minutes to fire up a new virtual server rather than hours
  3. Run your key webpages through testing tools to assess page load efficiency – there are free tools like Google PageSpeed Insights as well as paid tools
  4. Review the UX of your site on tablet/mobile – make sure you test your site and content campaigns on key devices (if your mobile traffic is dominated by iOS, test on iPhone & iPad).
  5. Review the core purchase paths in detail and iron out any glitches (don’t assume they’re still working fine). A good example is forms as data entry issues increase exit rates; make sure you’re using good practice techniques like address look-up.Sense Check2

Image: Google Developers PageSpeed Insights checklist for ebay.co.uk

Marketing & promotion

Surely sales will fly just because it’s Christmas? Just consider how many other companies are aggressively promoting at this time of year and you’ll realise how many competing marketing messages consumers are bombarded by.

Here’s my ‘top 5’ things to do:

  1. Ensure any products that are out of stock or low on stock are removed promptly from paid advertising campaigns – helps reduce wasted click costs
  2. Test a free/premium delivery offer (if you don’t already offer this as standard) – sacrifice margin to remove a key barrier to purchase.
  3. Promote products/services you sell that don’t need a physical delivery e.g. vouchers, experiences etc. This means you don’t have a last order cut-off date as the product can be sent electronically
  4. Map out product bundles that you can sell with a special price promotion to increase basket size e.g. for beauty products create a set with a toner, moisturiser and cleanser
  5. Plan your affiliate channel promotions – voucher and discount code searches spike in December/January, so make sure you’ve got a plan in place to take advantage (unless of course your brand is staunchly against discounting)

For multi-channel retailers with stores, promote in-store delivery heavily so that visitors know that there is still hope after the last order date for home delivery has passed.

Comments and questions

I know that by now the vast majority of sites are passed the code freeze window for development but that shouldn’t preclude fixing any glaring issues. The priority is to make it as easy and enjoyable as possible to buy from your website.

I’d welcome your comments, questions and suggestions. Please share this blog with anyone who you think would find it interesting/have something to add.