Unplanned Outages Threaten Holiday Boon for Retailers
According to an Aberdeen Group report, the average cost of downtime has increased to approximately $165,000 per hour. At no time is this cost more critical than during the holiday season, when online retail sales are expected to reach $96 billion. Unfortunately, the results of Panopta's recent study show that a number of major retailers could suffer significant unplanned outages this holiday season, hurting their chances of meeting revenue projections. Of the more than 130 retail sites analyzed, upwards of 45 percent experienced significant downtime since the beginning of the year, a bad omen that leads me to predict that many will likely suffer additional outages during this holiday season.
Website downtime carries numerous implications, most obviously the direct loss of sales with consumers unable to view product information and place orders. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, consumers quickly abandon unavailable websites for ones where they can make their desired purchase. The rise of social media has caused an amplification of outage visibility as consumers broadcast complaints on Twitter and Facebook when they're unable to use a site. Mitigating this potential damage requires extra revenue-draining resources.
Fortunately, there are a number of things that retailers can do in order to decrease the likelihood and duration of outages, even with hard-to-predict holiday traffic patterns. The first step is infrastructure preparation. Follow these tips:
- Review your current website infrastructure to look for any single points of failure. These are the components that could have the biggest direct impact to site availability when met with large increases in traffic, and therefore should be the top priority to address.
- Meet with hosting providers and other vendors, including payment processors, DNS providers, etc., to discuss current setup and scaling options.
- Make arrangements in advance to increase capacity, either through traditional hosting or cloud-based solutions.
- Offload images, videos and other static content to content delivery networks, which can more efficiently deliver large files to consumers’ browsers. Design efficiency is often quick and easy to implement and can have a substantial impact on stability.
Despite the best efforts of retailers, the complexity of modern website infrastructure means that to some degree outages are inevitable. The pre-planning and process they put in place to handle outages will often have a huge impact on total downtime. To minimize the impact of outages, retailers should do the following:
- Review the current monitoring setup to ensure full coverage of critical systems. Ensure that your operations team is the first to know about any problems, rather than being alerted to them via customer complaints.
- Map out potential failure scenarios and plan responses to each. In many cases simple steps can be taken to minimize the impact of each failure mode. For example, keeping a purely static version of your site which can be easily switched on in the event of catastrophic failure means that consumers will still see content rather than the dreaded "Internal Server" or "Site Unavailable" error messages.
- Implement test drills so your entire staff, including call-center, public relations and marketing teams, knows the right steps for communication internally and externally.
If retailers approach the holidays following the adage "hoping for the best, prepared for the worst and unsurprised by anything in between," their site should have a quiet and profitable season. Retailers can do a lot to avoid failures and deal with them when they happen, ensuring minimal impact on their bottom line.
Jason Abate is the founder and CEO of Panopta, which monitors websites, email servers and network infrastructure for thousands of customers in a variety of key market segments.