Unprecedented is a word we’ve heard perhaps a little too often this year, but there’s no escaping the fact that retailers’ preparations for peak 2020 will be markedly different from any other Christmas trading period they have experienced. And, with many non-essential retailers looking to the Golden Quarter to make up for lost ground, having had restricted trading when non-essential retail was forced to close, there’s even more pressure on retail teams to ‘get Christmas right’.
Add to this the surging demand for ecommerce brought about by lockdown, which accelerated buying behaviours in digital-natives as well as brining whole new cohorts of shoppers online, and the pressure’s on to maximise online sales channels. As 70.2million consumers say that they will only shop online moving forwards, the performance of ecommerce platforms has never been more critical to business success – and now even more so in the run up to peak.
So, what should retailers be doing to ready themselves? Our Head of Business Developemt, Alistair Morrison, caught up with Ed Perchick, Senior Director for Global Service Delivery at Tacit Knowledge, one of our partners, to find out.
AM: So, Ed, what should retailers be looking at right now to ready themselves for peak trading in a pandemic?
EP: The need and dependence on peak has been magnified through having a whole quarter of the year in lockdown. Yes, some retailers, particularly those in the homeware and DIY sectors and those with a small footprint, have done well out of lockdown, but in general in has been a particularly difficult trading period for retail as a whole.
When looking ahead to peak, retailers need to look at how they coped with the unplanned peak of lockdown – where they had a surge in digital demand but also in certain categories where panic buying was prevalent at the start of the pandemic. There are lessons to be learnt in terms of how websites behaved, but also how operations teams were able to cope with this unplanned demand.
And there is also a paradox that retailers need to address – and that is the investment in digital to drive peak revenue, which bucks up against the need for sustainability and to protect that income in the long-term. This is why we’ve seen widespread and significant restructuring, certainly among the larger retailers – the likes of Dixons Carphone, John Lewis, WHSmith etc – so they can plan ahead in case of another lockdown.
AM: And that comes with the same conflict we see during peak each year, the juggling act between adding new functionality and delivering value to customers versus being ready for that peak, because with any change, you also bring with risk. And if people are trying to cram in those changes – whether that’s functional changes, 3rd party plug-ins or tech changes – that’s going to be magnified this year. Is this something you’re seeing with your clients at the moment?
EP: Yes – and the single biggest thing when it comes to that balance is collaboration. Retailers should be bringing together the marketing teams to understand what planned promotions are going to take place and what the user journey looks like, and their technical performance teams, to assess which of those changes or developments will have the most significant impact ahead of time.
You can already be working with your marketing and UX teams to look at having optimised, or lighter pages, in the buying journey. You can look at removing friction and by doing so, you remove some of the load a site would normally have. And in tandem, you need to be working with your performance partner to look at how consumers currently behave on-site and forecasting how they are going to behave when it comes to peak, using analytic tools, such as Google Analytics or HotJars, to inform that strategy.
Ultimately, it those cross-departmental conversations and that unified collaboration between teams that will be critical in determining peak success.
AM: And that collaboration needs to start happening even earlier in the cycle to bring a diverse set of parties together so everyone understands what’s coming and how those changes will impact and being able and ready to react. It also allows things like testing schedule to align to the roadmap and means everyone is one the same page from the beginning as well as opting for a continual improvement strategy, testing as you go so you can be more ready. How can retailers do this more effectively?
EP: The value of a load test is to as closely as possible predict how the infrastructure will cope under a particular level of traffic and with certain customer behaviours. This means retailers need to understand the new customer journeys that are being set up – whether your setting up different promotions or creating a landing page for all the customers to be funnelled through – you need to make sure that performs. It’s also important that the testing environment is set up to mirror the live trading environment, as well as making sure any maintenance patching is completed after the first load test.
It’s also a good opportunity to check that your caching is up to date with any new functionalities that have been rolled out since the last load test.
Retailers should also use this process to review how many 3rd party plug-ins they have on the site. This is because some of these 3rd party tools may inadvertently increase load and impact performance, and can actually slow your site down. From a security perspective, retailers should also use this time to ensure they can effectively turn off any plug-ins in case of an instance of a data breach.
AM: Yes, and with any slowdown as a retailer you’re faced with how to handle that – and queuing is a really topical point, as many of the UK’s biggest retailers had to turn to this during lockdown when their sites became overwhelmed or over capacity.
EP: Exactly – you need to be testing way above where you expect capacity to be. That’s the key to understanding where the breaking point is and how to identify it and means you can then look at how you can scale up. You need those runbooks in place way ahead of time.
AM: So, what is the silver bullet – if there is one – in preparing for peak?
EP: Collaboration – making everyone in the business understand what their role and responsibility is – is the cornerstone of peak trading success.
That means teams are empowered to work together effectively, making sure the marketing teams have enough time to plan promotions, so the UX teams can then understand changes to the user journeys, and the tech team in conjunction with a performance partner can adequately test to ensure the robustness of the site ahead of time.
It’s that integration and collaboration that will make for a smooth and prosperous peak.