Giants Dugout shoppers

Datacember 3: How retailers and BloomReach stand up to retail’s 100-year flood

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-37-15-pm

Have you hugged a retail professional today?

It’s the one group that looks forward to the holiday season with greater intensity than a room full of second-graders. But for the retailers and those who work with them, there is a lot more at stake than whether or not that Nintendo NES Classic is going to be under the tree on Christmas morning.

The National Retail Federation says U.S. consumers will spend $655.8 billion this holiday season, an increase of 3.6 percent over last year. The other statistical hit parade is well known: Many retailers see 30 percent of their revenue and 40 percent of their profit during the last quarter of the year.

About half of all toys sold in any given year are sold during the holiday period, The Wall Street Journal reports.

In other words, it’s a big deal.

“There is just a higher sense of urgency, because each day, from a volume perspective, is bigger,”  Jane Feller, a senior buyer at home and decor retailer Bellacor, told me when we spoke last holiday season. “We have to make sure we get it right during the holiday.”

And so retailers, and the companies that support them, gear up. Holiday planning is like planning for the 100-year flood, and by early November it’s raining hard.

This year, the announcements came fast and furious: Macy’s would add 83,000 temporary workers to its payroll; Target was going for 70,000 and Kohl’s would recruit 60,000 seasonal employees, the Washington Post reports. Amazon planned to add at least 100,000 workers, up from 80,000 last year.

The reinforcements don’t stop in the store aisles. Target said it would add 7,500 e-commerce warehouse workers, the Post says. FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service all planned to bring on many tens of thousands of workers to keep packages moving.

And technology companies — such as BloomReach, which uses mounds of data, machine learning and natural language processing to help retailers sell products — switch into overdrive.

BloomReach, for instance, has run drills to prepare for any unforeseen glitches. It’s built a notification and response system that ensures that any impending problems could be tackled quickly. It has provisioned its data gathering and processing infrastructure to handle dramatic spikes without degrading performance. It has torture tested the loads that its servers and cloud systems can bear; and it has looked to its successes in holiday seasons past in preparation for the biggest test of the year.

Anyone working in the retail sector knows that while providing a superior customer experience is always important, the job takes on an added urgency during the holiday shopping season. Retailers will encounter shoppers intent on finding just the right gift. Some will be feeling the stress of the season. Some retailers will see customers for the first time. For them, holiday shopping becomes the proverbial one chance to make a first impression.

“So on a one-to-one basis with each customer, it’s making sure that you meet those customer expectations and that you’re not losing customers,” Jeffrey Kowalkoski, a site planning manager at Bellacor, told me in the run-up to holiday last year. “You have to try your best to make that experience for them the best that they could possibly have, so they’ll come back and shop your site again.”

BloomReach data provides a vivid illustration of the increased traffic that the holiday season brings to retailers and those who work with them. Traffic to BloomReach servers from customers increased as the traditional kickoff of the holiday shopping season approached. Server calls for one BloomReach product alone had climbed nearly 50 percent in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. By Cyber Monday, traffic had spiked by more than 76 percent.

Looking at the broadest measure of traffic (server calls across the range of BloomReach products) confirms that holiday-traffic increases were common throughout November. But, the boosts really kicked in on Thanksgiving Day, which saw traffic reach a peak 140 percent higher than the peak of a more typical day in late October.

pixel-queries-per-minute-tgiving

Traffic was up another 8.4 percent on Black Friday over Thanksgiving. And by Cyber Monday, peak traffic was 36 percent higher than on Black Friday and was more than triple that more typical peak of late October.

“And we didn’t even blink,” said Jurgen Philippaerts, a BloomReach technical staff member.

In fact, the traditional opening of the holiday shopping rush went exceedingly well for BloomReach, with no significant slowdowns or glitches. Which, of course, is a very good sign for the coming weeks of a holiday season that will continue to produce peaks and valleys of traffic on the web and in brick-and-mortar stores.

The problem-free start to the season is also another reason to find your retail hero and offer him or her a hug.

Photo by Mike Cassidy.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.