8 tips for surviving Cyber Monday as an online merchant

November 25, 2015

In the fall of 2012, Chelsea Staires Sun launched Coterie Market, an online service delivering handcrafted goods from Austin-based producers, as a way to channel her passion for the Go Local movement that advocates buying from local, small businesses.
 
But even for her, around this time of year, business is anything but small. eMarketer forecasts online sales to reach $3 billion on Cyber Monday, with the months of November and December topping out around $79.4 billion. 22 percent of the year’s e-commerce transactions are expected to happen on mobile devices.
 
The season that makes or breaks the year for most retailers has taught Staires Sun some tough lessons about running an online store. She increasingly relies on software tools to manage it all, many of which are also locally based.
 
The motor that will keep her moving this weekend is Austin-based , which provides hosting and tools like inventory management for online stores like Coterie.
 
Scott Baker, head of site reliability & operations at Bigcommerce, said site performance can be a matter of life or death for an online retailer during the critical shopping season.
 
“Anything more than two seconds for a full page load and conversions can decrease dramatically,” he said. “One of our merchants once had a very successful four-hour flash sale with 72 orders per second.”
 
"It’s as if time is very condensed during the period," CTO David E. Thompson, Jr. said.
 
Some sites are working in even smaller increments.
 
"Pages that load slowly lead to customers hitting the back button," vice president of engineering Josh Butts said. "So we focus on making all our pages load in around a tenth of a second."
 
We asked Baker, Butts and Thompson, along with co-founder Sangram Kadam how e-tailers big and small can leverage tech to make the most of the shopping rush. Here are their eight tips.
 

1. Surprise customers, not vendors

A flash sale planned for a few hours can be a boon for your business, unless it causes your site to crash. Make sure your vendors know when you’re expecting traffic to spike so they can scale up to support you.
 
Butts said times like midnight on Black Friday and Cyber Monday can be the toughest because people immediately start searching to see the deals the minute they go live.
 
"In some cases, we know in advance what the timing will be on media coverage for deals, but sometimes a link or an article will get syndicated to a major source and we will see a massive influx of customers when a story gets featured on their homepage. Over the past year we've built a highly sophisticated system in Amazon's cloud to deal with these traffic spikes and we're looking forward to putting it to the test this year.”
 

2. Prepare for attack

If you’re big enough to be a target, this is when bad actors will want to bring you down with a distributed denial of service, or DDOS, which is sometimes followed by extortion attempts. Enlist the help of a mitigation solution. Baker recommended Cloudflare, which he said can also improve page load time.
 

3. Use external monitoring

You’ll be busy enough on Black Friday without having to monitor metrics. If something breaks, don’t let your customer be the first to tell you about it. Services like Alertsite, Uptime Cloud Monitor and Pingdom can watch your site for slowdowns, errors and crashes.
 

4. Balance the load

You already know your business runs better when you delegate tasks to employees and vendors. Your site works the same way. The more times your site has to ping a database to load a page, the longer it takes. So the more of your content you can cache in a content delivery network instead, the faster your pages will load, which we’ve already learned means more sales.
 

5. No time to tinker

Most of our experts mentioned the industry-wide best practice of placing a freeze on code changes during the holidays. It’s just common sense: Errors tend to happen when you push new features due to unexpected code conflicts. But this is no time for taking chances with errors, so commit to not commit changes, and make sure your vendors do the same.
 

6. Plan ahead

It’s one thing to be prepared. It’s another to use predictive analytics to analyze needs before they arise and respond in real time.
 
“There’s pressure on retailers to react more quickly, monitoring the performance of special events to ensure they are having the intended effect,” Thompson said. “Those systems are crucial here for everything from supply chain to pricing and promotions, which is one of Revionics’ sweet spots.”
 

7. Service above self

Bespoke gifting service Loop & Tie uses Zendesk and Intercom for staying on top of customer contact as it happens, lending a personal touch to the online shopping experience.
 
“It lets us answer customer service requests from our phones at the Thanksgiving table,” founder Sara Rodell said, adding, “Our families are extra understanding this time of year.”
 

8. Ship happens

Even if your customers have a good experience on your site, it ain’t over ‘til the package arrives. Ordoro helps that happen smoothly for e-commerce sites. Co-founder Sangram Kadam’s top tip for e-tailers was to know your deadlines and communicate them clearly to customers.
 
“Every carrier has a specific date when they cut-off their shipping before the holidays,” he said. “A customer is going to be angry if a gift doesn’t make it in time.”
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