Last-minute tips: Manage website traffic during the holiday season

Most businesses consider more web traffic to be a good thing. It’s a measure of success. Of visibility. But what happens during the holiday season when too much traffic becomes a problem? Website outages can be highly costly in terms of both revenue and reputation.

Published: 04. Dec 2017
Retail discounts

In this interview, Queue-it’s CTO, Martin Pronk, and VP of Tech Engagement, Michael Rasmussen, share their insights into this year’s Black Friday web performance, common mistakes that retailers make when handling big campaigns, and last-minute tips on how to manage website traffic during the holiday season.

How do you think retailers handled Black Friday from a web performance perspective this year?

Martin Pronk: Several retailers had outages during the Black Friday event causing page errors and lost revenue. For those who handled Black Friday successfully, planning four to six months ahead was key. By load testing e-commerce platforms thoroughly, preparing in advance of the event and formulating a comprehensive plan for handling the event across departments, major outages were avoided. Some of our customers used our virtual waiting room safety net solution which worked as an ‘insurance’ against failures on their online shop, as it handled the overflow of users. The good thing about this solution was that the queue got activated only when the traffic was exceeding their website capacity, which means that their customers were able to access the website at any time without it failing. We’re pleased to report that all of our customers went through the biggest sales event of the year with no negative impact on performance.

Michael Rasmussen: Several retailers were taken by surprise as their marketing campaigns were more successful than expected and if they did not have a backup plan for handling situations like this, the result was often a webshop outage. It takes years to build a reputation and only a few seconds of downtime to cause massive damage. Here at Queue-it, we were very busy during Black Friday and Cyber Monday. We served retailers across the world and saw close to one million people per hour through our queue system during the events. Even though many big retailers were prepared for unexpected situations and their systems could handle the load, they used our system as a backup plan for the peak periods and everything went smoothly.

“It takes years to build a reputation and only a few seconds of downtime to cause massive damage.”

Michael Rasmussen VP of Technical Engagement

Michael Rasmussen, VP of Tech Engagement at Queue-it

For the ones that didn’t do so well, what are some of the most common mistakes that you see retailers making when it comes to handling Black Friday?

Michael Rasmussen: We’ve noticed that some retailers perhaps do not understand the difference between what server scaling provides and what transactional operations on a website require.

Imagine this scenario: a shopper accesses an online store and spends half an hour browsing the site, only to have the website go down at the checkout. While being thrilled about the expected increase in traffic and orders, many retailers forgot to keep an eye on having their site up and running throughout the whole customer journey.

Martin Pronk: If they failed last year because their infrastructure could not handle the traffic, no historical data was available to use as a benchmark. So, when scaling for this year, they were missing the valuable data and therefore their systems failed again. Running solely on cloud-based solutions was another problem that was often overlooked. Running the webshop on a cloud solution doesn’t necessarily make it more scalable on any significant level, as a lot of cloud-hosted webshops also struggled during the Black Friday sales.

Some of the biggest bottlenecks online retailers should keep an eye on for the upcoming holiday season?

Martin Pronk: A common bottleneck for online transactions occurs at the payment system when it is not possible to process an increase in transactions. Besides the time the payment verification requires, payment gateway providers only have a finite number of transactions they can handle. So, on big campaign days like Boxing Day, when 10 times the number of transactions are expected to be handled by a payment gateway service, and with infrastructure only geared to normal traffic, something is bound to go wrong.

Another common bottleneck of the e-commerce application resides in its transaction database. This locking system is synchronized with the inventory system, placing items the customer wishes to purchase on hold, and reserves it for a specific amount of time during checkout while the customer completes the purchase. If the database isn’t functioning properly and these calls are not delivered at the speed of the requests, orders can be mixed up, resulting in the same item of inventory being sold multiple times. Controlling the website traffic and throughput, based on the speed that this locking mechanism can operate, is the only way to safeguard against the massive influx of customers attempting to reserve inventory of limited or heavily discounted items.

Do you have any last-minute tips on how retailers can bulletproof their websites and handle peak capacity during the holiday season sales?

Martin Pronk: Simulate and plan ahead for the big campaign day. Take into consideration that online traffic peaks are usually in full swing one to two hours before the sales start, so prepare your website for the load well in advance. A virtual waiting room can be implemented to control the inflow of customers to help you avoid major technical issues and customer frustration throughout the whole event.

The key here is that the holiday season is really a ‘make or break’ period for major online retailers. There is a fine line between success and failure. When 30 percent of annual retail sales occur between Black Friday and Christmas, you don’t want to gamble. Invest in systems that will guarantee you’re up and running at full speed 24/7.

“The holiday season is really a ‘make or break’ period for major online retailers. There is a fine line between success and failure.”

Martin Pronk CTO

Martin Pronk, CTO at Queue-it

Michael Rasmussen: Communication between the technical and marketing departments is crucial during big campaign events. So, it would not hurt to do a quick analysis together to prepare for a last-minute check-in before the Christmas and Boxing Day sales mania begins. Align on questions such as:

  • What end-user patterns and volume does marketing expect, and how can the IT department handle it?
  • When are the campaigns set to go, and does IT have the resources and capacity to ensure success?
  • Whom do we contact if we encounter problems?

Handle holiday traffic with a virtual waiting room