Keeping the Doors Wide Open: The Peak Traffic Challenge in E-Commerce
Holiday spending makes or breaks the retail year. Less critical but also important are events like Mother’s Day, Father's Day, Valentine’s Day and others. Physical and digital stores go all-out to provide a great shopping experience during these times. Yet holiday 2019 repeated a pattern that has been persistent since online shopping began: websites or apps that crashed or slowed to a crawl during peak traffic periods. There hasn’t been a single Black Friday without a headline-grabbing retail e-commerce snafu.
Catchpoint has been monitoring the digital experience of desktop and mobile websites for the top 500 U.S. retailers for nine years running. When we talk about tracking the digital experience, we refer to four categories of metrics:
- Availability: the percent of time a web page was fully available to a shopper with no failure to load or site maintenance alerts shown.
- Performance: the unique load time standard for your company (e.g., no shopper should wait longer than three seconds for a page to load and be usable).
- Reliability: the consistency with which your pages are available and perform well over time.
- Reachability: a cousin of availability, this metric asks: Can users access your application, and if not, what's preventing reliable availability and performance?
In the early days of the web, your entire site was likely hosted on one server, but the growth of third-party services — the cloud, load balancers, DNS, CDNs, security layers, payment providers, etc. — compels you to secure telemetry on these external elements. Therefore, reachability becomes a vitally important category.
Lessons Learned From Black Friday-Cyber Monday 2019
In tracking this many retailers, certain patterns emerged. First the good news: retailers avoided lengthy bouts of downtime during heavy traffic periods. They're also getting better at quickly alerting customers when their sites are unavailable or running slowly.
The unavailability of Costco.com to make a transaction or perform a search on Thanksgiving Day was short-lived, though slowness persisted through to Saturday. H&M’s website was also down on Thanksgiving and intermittently Friday morning. Home Depot, Forever 21, and Hobby Lobby, among others, also had problems, though nothing major. Not great, but certainly better than past years.
Still, one must take into account the impact of a down or slow-loading site. The equivalent experiences for a physical store would be literally shutting the front door or forcing customers to wait in very long checkout lines. Then there’s the potential brand damage, particularly as shoppers flock to Twitter to vent their frustrations.
Identifying Common Problem Areas
Based on what we’ve seen in the past few years of peak traffic periods, we’ve identified some consistent problem areas which still plague retailers:
- Page weight: As simple as it sounds, heavy pages (too many photos or videos) remain a primary cause of slow load times. Some retailers lighten up on page elements during peak periods. If not, compensate for this with increased bandwidth.
- Micro outages: These are short-lived and tend to be regional in nature. If your tracking metrics depend on national averages, you might miss these smaller events, however, they're just as frustrating as big ones to the shoppers affected. Therefore, pay attention to what’s happening regionally, especially in areas where your best customers are located.
- Mapping the entire delivery chain: This is where reachability comes in. The third-party elements upon which your site depends stand between you and your customers. Even though these external resources are beyond your direct control, you need to track them as closely — maybe more closely — than your own host servers. We’ve seen many problems over the years directly related to poorly performing third parties.
- Lack of relevant benchmarking: How do you know you’re doing well technically if there’s no clear point of comparison? This is where the "Amazon Effect" has forced all retailers to be fast and always available. Like Google in search, Amazon.com has created a standard which customers use as their point of reference. Who are your top five competitors? What is their performance like? Knowing answers to these questions will put your digital experience metrics in context.
- Not correlating technology and business KPIs: Business Insider reported that Costco lost $11 million in sales due to its holiday problems. Savvy companies know exactly the price they will pay for slow performance, even if it’s only a few minutes of slow-loading pages. Conversely, it's important to report when speed and availability increases add to the bottom line. Therefore, set your own key performance indicators (KPIs).
And the Winners!
The retailers that pay close attention to these issues provide a fast and flawless experience. It's not a surprise that Amazon tops the list, but it is notable that smaller companies round out the top 10 fastest retailers during the Black Friday-Cyber Monday time period.
The performance metric we use here is document complete, defined as the page load time required to make it usable by the shopper (even if other page elements are still loading in the background).
We are over 20 years into the e-commerce era and customers have come to expect fully available digital stores and blazing fast page load times. This expectation will only increase, with faster devices and the advent of 5G. This is why the one overriding lesson from holiday 2019 may be that slowness is the new downtime.
Mehdi Daoudi is the CEO of Catchpoint, a provider of digital experience intelligence.