This is not a drill.
After months of planning, e-tailers and those who support them are greeting the holiday shopping season full on — with the understanding that as much as 40 percent of retail revenue is realized in the last two months of the year and that those sales are increasingly happening online.
In short, it’s showtime for retailers, who see dramatic spikes in Web traffic on key shopping days like Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday — and who know high numbers of digital shoppers will likely be arriving into January.
BloomReach’s internal data shows that traffic from its e-commerce customers hit its highest peak on Thanksgiving and that Black Friday brought a marathon of high traffic volume. Cyber Monday was another day of sustained high volume, which peaked at levels very near Thanksgiving’s spike. (Not surprisingly, the Thanksgiving peak hit at 7:08 p.m. PST, during halftime of the prime-time NFL game and after most of the country had finished its holiday feast.)
In fact, a key measure of daily traffic to BloomReach servers — requests for BloomReach SNAP services — was up nearly 46 percent on Thanksgiving and more than 151 percent on Black Friday compared to the Thursday and Friday a week earlier.
“The peak was three times the typical peak traffic in the non-holiday season,” says Christy Augustine, BloomReach’s head of customer operations. “Thanksgiving day saw the highest spike in traffic, but Black Friday saw the longest — basically a 12-hour spike in traffic.”
Though much has been made of the National Retail Federation’s estimate that online and in-store retail sales over the Thanksgiving weekend declined by 11 percent, a number of other sources presented real-time data showing that e-commerce increased markedly.
BloomReach’s internal data is in keeping with IBM findings that e-commerce traffic was significantly higher all weekend, compared to Thanksgiving weekend 2013. IBM’s Smarter Commerce division reported that e-commerce sales were up compared to 2013 by 14.3 percent on Thanksgiving, 8.5 percent on Black Friday, 17 percent on Saturday and Sunday and 8.1 percent on Cyber Monday.
Retail analytics firm Custora reported that compared to last year, e-commerce sales were up 15.4 percent for the long Thanksgiving weekend, including a 15.4 percent increase on Cyber Monday, a 20.6 percent rise on Black Friday and a 17.7 percent bump on Thanksgiving.
No question, retailers and those who support them have known for years that preparation is the key to dealing with the way such traffic increases can stress key systems. E-commerce enterprises have been hiring reinforcements for fulfillment centers and customer service, while testing systems, managing inventory and solidifying shipping arrangements.
Here at BloomReach, engineers, customer success experts and others began planning months ago for the exceptionally high rates of data from customers that accompany the busiest shopping season of the year. The effort paid off: The company’s system for powering search and navigation and providing personalized recommendations to consumers (BloomReach SNAP) performed without fail throughout the holiday weekend.
“I think it’s a great start to the holiday period,” Augustine says. “I’m excited. We’ve spent two quarters making sure that we were ready for this holiday season. So, it’s good to see that all that work paid off.”
The work included torture-testing systems and shoring up weak spots.
“We had mock drills internally,” Augustine says. “We basically had the team go through drills, if something happened, what would we do? How could we react? And based on that, how could we make our own system more robust?”
Engineers, product engagement managers and others tested the performance of BloomReach-powered features on customers’ sites — features that use big data and machine learning to build a deep understanding of both a site’s content and a shopper’s intent when he or she is seeking products and recommendations.
Teams of workers poured over data from last year and interviewed customers to clearly understand what kind of holiday traffic they could expect. An existing alert system was enhanced so that each responder had a backup and each backup had a backup.
“The team is in place, but we basically beefed up that support team with our customer support and engineering team,” Augustine says, including team members in India, who help provide support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
And though retailers are in the midst of closing the books on Cyber Monday, the holiday season roars on for companies working in e-commerce.
“The season is not over and it doesn’t end with Christmas, either,” Augustine says. “We assume that the holiday season continues all the way through the end of the year. And January is a big promotional season.”
And so, the show goes on.
Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.