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Best Practices Coming Out of the Winter Shopping Season

The 2014/2015 holiday and winter shopping season has come to a close. Now, it's time for retailers to optimise and prepare for next year's certain growth in eCommerce and mCommerce activity. With the major holidays out of the way, retailers can now reflect what did and didn't work and what they can do to improve sales performance for the year ahead.
While no retailer's experience is identical to another's, there are a number of trends and best practices that Akamai observed across its customer base in Europe that will benefit e-tailers from all regions. By keeping these in mind, retailers will ensure fast, reliable and secure user experiences across devices in 2015.

Traffic numbers continue to increase: Ensure fast and reliable user experiences.
In several European regions Akamai retail customers experienced noticeably high traffic peaks this season, with almost all of the seven main regions of Europe observing peaks close to four times that of their respective baseline measurements from October. Even so, these peaks still don't come close to a few regions' traffic highs, such as the Nordics and Spain, which experienced peak traffic 16 times and 13.5 times higher than their baselines, respectively.

All of which highlights the need for retailers to understand their website capacities and vulnerabilities. Utilising load testing to simulate realistic seasonal traffic, and reveal the website's breaking points under heightened traffic volumes can help to avoid glitches in real user scenarios. The key here is to analyse yearly traffic growth and peaks, and test systems against these numbers to ensure sites won't buckle under the added (and positive) activity during the winter months. When testing, it is important to consider modelling traffic load as accurately as you can, including 3rd party content and plugins. This also means testing a full end-to-end purchasing transaction, right up to and including the payment gateway if possible.

Once retailers know they can handle capacity demands, there are three key ways to ensure speedy and safe content delivery to consumers during the busy winter months. First, get content closer to end users by bringing it closer to the edge of the network for faster delivery to the end users. Secondly, apply network based optimisations to accelerate requests to the data center or cloud provider.. Finally, optimise the website to be as lean as possible, serving unnecessary bytes hurts performance and this will be amplified during peak periods. In addition to traditional optimisation techniques, retailers should also take advantage of content and object pre-fetching. They can designate the pages that users are most likely to visit next and cache non-personalised content to minimise round trips, enabling browsers to load and render an application faster. Some sites even go as far as having a separate, lightweight website for sale periods only.

The holiday season is growing longer: Prepare and start sales earlier to take advantage.
Traffic peaked throughout Europe in early November, and Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the shopping days in between have become increasingly popular. European Black Friday peak retail traffic grew by 280 percent over its October 2014 baseline traffic levels, and 360 percent over its 2013 average traffic. Meanwhile, traditional shopping during January's winter sales proved equally buoyant. Retailers should open the sales "flood gates" early and keep them open later to reap the rewards of this longer shopping season.

With an elongated shopping season and several high-trafficked shopping days, retailers should communicate with their eCommerce partners to develop a plan that encompasses all anticipated holiday traffic and the potential threat it presents. And, regardless of any rigorous preparation that may have occurred well in advance of the winter season, retailers should always have a backup plan in place.

That backup plan should include tools like Shopper Prioritisation, which allows retailers to place shoppers in queue if back-end services are becoming overloaded. When implementing these solutions, it's important to think about where to place the queue. For example, queues may be placed at the checkout in a physical store, whereas online stores tend to force a queue before a customer browses. Careful load testing will highlight potential bottlenecks of each shopping scenario and armed with this information the queue can be placed in the best place to provide users the best shopping experience.

Another important planning tool is an operational run book. This will define key components, contacts and dates for holiday promotions and activities, and will enable clients and partners to communicate better, enjoy faster response times and experience increased efficiencies in solving business-critical needs.

Mobile commerce grows, but lags on popular shopping days: Trend underscores need for seamless "anywhere" experiences.
Europeans have embraced mCommerce with vigour. Specific highlights include Boxing Day in the UK and Ireland, during which the region recorded the highest average mobile activity of 61 percent (over desktop activity). And, as reported by IBM, mobile sales in the UK increased year-over-year by more than 29 percent. Furthermore, Akamai data shows that 20 percent of all European holiday traffic came from iPads and 14 percent came from Android devices.

While these are all impressive statistics, it is still difficult to say that mobile commerce drove sales on popular shopping days this season. European shoppers actually used mobile devices less frequently during the holidays as compared to the baseline activity, as measured throughout the month of October. During the winter months, Europeans turned to mobile devices two percentage points less (45 percent) than the 47 percent mobile baseline average.

Because of these seemingly conflicting data points, it is imperative that retailers optimise their networks and applications to accommodate connected devices, but understand as much as they can about the context and connectivity of their users. Consumers are always connected - whether they're in their homes, cars, offices or within a retailer's store. Retailers should have technologies and analytics in place that allow them review real-time user experiences, regardless of where users are and what devices and operating systems they're using.

Conclusion
It is no secret that web experiences impact business. Websites and apps must be fast, reliable and secure at all hours and under all traffic conditions, or retailers will see less engagement, higher bounce rates and abandoned shopping carts, which can ultimately affect consumer loyalty and spend. In order to learn from the previous shopping season, online retailers must closely analyse their websites' strengths and weaknesses, as well how each user accessed and experienced the site. While the winter shopping season may be coming to a close, its lessons are just now revealing themselves, and the retailers who pay attention to them will celebrate even more success in 2015 and early 2016.

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