Last year’s Black Friday – the first of the pandemic – caused a significant uptick in online sales, despite an overall dip in retail transactions, due to the widespread closure of shops on high streets the length and breadth of the country.
According to UK e-retail analyst IMRG, online retail sales across the Black Friday week (23-30 November 2020) grew by 30 percent, with sales across November as a whole rising by 39 percent from comparable 2019 figures – the highest year-on-year increase since 2007.
Black Friday has become a bellwether for retail health. What started out as an imported, Thanksgiving-based, one-day flash sale has, over the past seven-or-so years, morphed into a much longer pre-Christmas shopping event here in the UK – a festival of peak trading that could perhaps legitimately be renamed Black November, kicking off with Prime Day at the end of October.
The success of Black Friday 2021 is likely to rest not only on the pulling power of retailers’ special offers but also on the strength of their eCommerce strategies. As details are finalised ahead of the big day, effective online testing protocols should already be a core part of every retailer’s plan.
Deri Jones, CEO of thinkTribe, explains how brands can optimize online performance to capitalize on the Black Friday bonanza.
Ready for peak
Mass outages don’t happen as often as they used to – thanks in the main to advances in website design and the use of scalable technology. Retailers still have to deploy good housekeeping habits to properly prepare for peak traffic, however.
Simply put, without prioritizing testing and optimization, web errors can emerge and persist, slowing progress and foiling attempts by even the most dogged shoppers to splash the cash when Black Friday bargains go live.
These aren’t rare anomalies that only affect a handful of transactions. The latest thinkTribe research underscores the prevalence of undetected errors: a quarter of consumers are regularly frustrated by ‘buy’ buttons that don’t work, while almost half have abandoned their basket at the checkout, thanks to a broken promotion code. The significant takeaway for retailers is that even those customers who successfully navigate the entire length of the sales funnel can be sidelined by a costly glitch. Not only does this affect the business’s bottom line but it can result in longer-term brand damage.
More complex = more to go wrong
Websites are more complex than they’ve ever been. To keep pace with customer expectations, retailers are re-platforming, integrating systems and extending their online inventory. They’re also introducing new functionality and greater personalization – which, in turn, leans more heavily on third-party plug-ins.
Shopper behaviour is also changing, adding new and unexpected traffic patterns as well as extra load stress to systems.
Research by John Lewis Partnership Card, for instance, shows that more Brits are shopping from the comfort of their own beds, with one in 15 purchases now made during what has previously been a quiet time for online retailers – between midnight and 6am.
Obviously, flexing capacity to ensure round-the-clock web availability, as well as to accommodate new shopping trends, is an important part of any ecommerce strategy, any time of the year. Against the frenzied backdrop of Black Friday expectations – with annual results hanging in the balance – it becomes super-critical.
Walk this way
There is no more effective way of putting a retail website through its paces than by looking at the buying journey through the customer’s eyes.
However, retailers commonly run tests using unrealistic pathways, entry points and links that are inaccessible to the public, making it hard to replicate the behaviour they’re so keen to analyze. Ignoring customization and personalization during tests also skews results.
Basing tests on real behaviour (from real data) and employing a realistic mix of end-to-end journeys, including drop-off ratios, is essential. Performance metrics are ubiquitous, but retailers should prioritize customer experience above all others.
Monitor third-party plug-ins
Third-party plug-ins have become a de facto part of most retailers’ ecommerce offerings, offering additional functionalities like personalization. They elevate the user experience and help engender brand loyalty far beyond the shelf life of the Black Friday sales events.
Adding plug-ins ratchets up the risk factor, though. Plug-in developers update and refresh code on an ongoing basis, making it likely that the odd buggy piece of code will make an unwelcome appearance from time to time. The only way of ensuring that this doesn’t impact the customer experience is by monitoring journeys – something that’s especially important during peak trading periods.
Sluggish performance is often the biggest bugbear for Black Friday shoppers, so some retailers temporarily strip back the third-party bells and whistles, ditching superfluous components or calls that could unnecessarily complicate the customer journey and impact page load times. Suspending some third-party products and keeping pages small will also give sites a better chance of working optimally on mobile devices.
Obviously, any new journeys will need to be comprehensively tested, right up to choosing the delivery option and checking out.
Test in the round
Your website doesn’t operate in isolation – so make sure you plan a holistic approach to your testing strategy. All digital channels should be tested ahead of Black Friday, with the goal of delivering a consistently high level of web performance and creating a smooth customer experience across all devices and platforms.
There’s no escaping the fact that website testing is a complex and potentially resource-heavy necessity. Retailers need to honestly consider whether they have the technical expertise in-house to fully test their complex ecommerce platforms.
The broader move by web developers towards a so-called ‘shift-left’ methodology – bringing testing into the early stages of software development to minimize problems further down the road – has placed even greater pressure on teams to deliver quickly. An agile approach like this requires constant, iterative testing throughout the development cycle but doesn’t eliminate the need to test altogether in later stages – especially where online revenues are so significant as to present a load capacity risk omnichannel retailers simply can’t ignore.
Black Friday may have evolved from its flash sale high-street origins into a largely online phenomenon that stretches across weeks, but it still has the power to impact the retail landscape – for better or worse. It means that retailers have to adapt their platforms, inventories, merchandising and sales strategies to optimize its opportunities – an approach that must incorporate effective testing and optimization strategies to elevate the online experience and win loyalty.
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