The nightmare after Christmas

Major technical problems on a peak shopping day is generally something online retailers only see in a bad dream. Unfortunately, last year, these nightmares became a reality

The nightmare after Christmas

Unsurprisingly, the Christmas period is vital for online retailers; fail to take it seriously and you can easily slip from liquidity to insolvency in the blink of an eye. But it doesn’t end the second the wrapping paper hits the floor. The post-Christmas sales aren’t just an opportunity for retailers to give a little back with some hearty reductions; they exist to stimulate demand during what would otherwise be an incredibly fallow retail period. And, given it’s a time of tightened belts, every day really does count.

Which is why Boxing Day last year undoubtedly set a few klaxons going. Keynote, the market research company, was conducting routine analysis on some of the UK’s major retailers and noticed something unusual. Typically, in the run-up to Christmas, performance – the speed at which a website responds – tends to drop because of the volume of traffic. Whilst Keynote saw this rebound as expected after Christmas Day 2013, something else took a nosedive. “We saw availability drop on a number of sites,” says Robert Castley, lead solutions consultant for EMEA at the firm.

According to the company’s findings, 12 out of the 18 retailers monitored had faster response times during the week following Christmas than the week preceding it. However, reliability of sites dropped significantly, with the brunt of the damage taking place on Boxing Day. On average, retailers’ sites were only available 97.08% of the time. Whilst this may sound relatively innocuous, data showing that Dorothy Perkins fell to just 50% availability at 11am and River Island to 66.67% at midday demonstrates quite how many customers were being missed.

However, perhaps more worrying than this was the nature of the faults returned. “In this particular situation, the error that was being returned was what was called a ‘500 error’, which basically means that the server was unavailable,” Castley comments. Generally, when a section of a website is unavailable, due to updates or major changes, a message will be displayed explaining this is the case. “It’s not like you don’t get anything – you do at least actually get something letting you know that is the case.” 

But Keynote’s analysis on Boxing Day demonstrated this wasn’t happening. “With a number of these sites there was what was deemed a 500 error, which just means that nothing was being presented to the user,” Castley says. Inevitably, this wouldn’t have exactly left customers with the best of impressions. “The home page is the window through which people all look through. For people to attempt to access the site and get nothing back doesn’t really build the confidence for the consumer.”

Not only this but, on one of the key trading days of the year, anything blocking customers from entering your store is potentially catastrophic because you’re not capturing them at the moment of purchasing intent. “It would have been disappointing for them,” says Castley. “The sales would have kicked off, people are looking for the next bargain and people would have been coming to these sites and getting nothing. They lost revenue potentially by not being available at those times.”

Given the disparate nature of the problem, being spread as it was across many high-profile retailers each with their own servers and e-commerce platforms, it’s difficult to point to any one route cause as being behind these lapses in availability. And whilst it’s tempting to bash retailers for their lack of preparedness, it does seem this may have been something of a freak occurrence.

Looking at other times of high demand demonstrates that retailers aren’t found wanting when it comes to resilience. The recent doubleheader of Black Friday and Cyber Monday last year could certainly have caught online retailers unaware but Keynote identified few problems during these peak shopping days. “This year was the biggest year for Black Friday and Cyber Monday and they survived it; they got through,” Castley comments. This suggests a confluence of forces perhaps led to the poor results; things that couldn’t be predicted, only fixed retrospectively. “There would have been some poor chap having to jump away from his turkey curry and go and fix a few problems.”

Of course, in light of this, it’s tempting to just write off these Boxing Day issues. Christmas is now, after all, little more than a memory. But Castley is keen to stress that this doesn’t mean that there aren’t important lessons to learn from all this, particularly with more key shopping days like Valentine’s Day and Mothers’ Day looming on the imminent horizon.

“These days, people are more savvy about the tools and facilities that are out there that allow them to test and optimise,” he explains. Not only will this have allowed online retailers to detect when these problems arise but it also won’t be disregarded, ensuring they can learn from the potential weaknesses in their system that could limit their sales. “I’m sure they’re now putting out point releases,” he continues. “They’ll have looked at the data and thought ‘we could improve things here, we could improve things there’.”

Ultimately, when you’re operating in the tech space, shielding oneself from all errors that could potentially occur is a rather Sisyphean task. However, when significant problems do arise, only a fool doesn’t learn from his or her mistakes. 

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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