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Holiday Planning Starts Now

Finding the right technologies ahead of time can help retailers thrive during the holiday rush

THE HOLIDAYS WERE HAPPY FOR MANY ONLINE RETAILERS, as web sales (excluding sales on mobile devices) grew roughly 15% in November and December, according to web measurement firm comScore Inc.

The retailers that thrived during the season were ready for the challenges the season presented, thanks in part to their efforts to plan ahead and map out how they could provide the best customer experience possible across all customer touch points, while also being ready to contend with market trends and technology challenges.

Market trends retailers faced last year included the early start of holiday sales promotions, and the greater waves of traffic it brought to e-retail sites. “Online holiday shopping traffic is peaking earlier and those peaks are lasting longer, which is why e-retailers need to be prepared for every day during the holiday season to be Cyber Monday,” says Kyle York, chief revenue officer for Dyn, a cloud-based Internet performance company. “E-retail is a competitive space and consumers know they have options. In fact, 40% of users abandon web sites that take more than 3 seconds to load.”

Retailers also need to be prepared to deliver the same brand and customer shopping experience, no matter what device a shopper uses because mobile shoppers expect sites to load just as quickly as they do on desktop computers, York adds.

Mobile is mainstream

Paying attention to mobile shoppers’ needs is increasingly important because mobile commerce has gone mainstream. For instance, during the holiday season consumers used mobile devices to complete 30% of the purchases that took place on Bigcommerce customers’ retail sites. Those mobile transactions accounted for 25% of those merchants’ revenue, according to the e-commerce technology provider. And even more shoppers are viewing retailers’ marketing messages on mobile devices: 40% of marketing e-mails sent to U.S. consumers are opened on a mobile device, according to Bigcommerce data.

“Mobile is becoming a bigger consumer touch point for retailers, so they should invest in ways to make the mobile experience more user-friendly and consistent with their online brand and shopping experience,” says Tim Schulz, senior vice president of products at Bigcommerce.

Targeting mobile users with abandoned cart e-mails, for example, can help retailers recover lost sales, he says. Those messages are particularly effective among mobile shoppers because those shoppers often abandon their shopping carts when they’re multitasking and, once they leave a site or app, they’re less likely to return and buy. E-mailing a mobile shopper a reminder of what’s in her cart within an hour of abandonment can prompt her to complete the purchase, even if she does so on another device.

Retailers should also format their e-mails and mobile landing pages so they are properly sized to the device’s screen size.

E-retailers can also aggressively leverage social media to connect with holiday shoppers. Adding rich pins on Pinterest, for example, can increase a shopper’s average order size as much as 60%, Schulz says. Rich pins enable a consumer to see the current price, whether the product is in stock, as well as provide a link to the merchant’s site. That’s unlike regular pins that contain static pricing information and only display the retailer’s site when a shopper mouses over a product image.

“If there is a price change, someone following that product on Pinterest can see it right away through a rich pin,” Schulz says. “Retailers don’t want to put their social media marketing strategy on autopilot because it can hold down average order sizes for shoppers that come to their sites through social media.”

Monitoring performance

E-retailers should not evaluate their web site performance in a vacuum either. Experts suggest retailers start by scrutinizing their entire technology infrastructure (cloud, content delivery network, domain name system and transit services), including applications and connections to outside technology providers, such as content management system, translation and live chat providers.

“Retailers need to dig deep into all components of their web infrastructure to learn where performance fell down and why,” says Dyn’s York. “They also need to identify areas where performance can be improved even if they didn’t slip.”

Finding areas where e-retailers can improve their performance can help merchants meet shoppers’ expectations. “It’s not just about meeting uptime or page load times, but about looking deeper into how best to meet consumer expectations for performance, such as how fast traffic can be rerouted to another server if needed without a noticeable drop in performance,” York says.

E-retailers selling internationally should consider working with local technology providers for each country or region to improve their performance because those vendors will likely be aware of performance problems non-native technology partners aren’t. “Most online retailers sell across a broad area and are concerned about performance consistency within their country, across the continent or around the globe,” he says. “The challenge is to deliver a consistent, superior user experience no matter where the customer is located, whether it’s Manhattan, western Canada, Brazil or China. Dyn’s online retail customers have leveraged our global network and Internet performance solutions to address these issues.”

Alternatively, retailers can contract with local technology partners on a country-by-country basis to back up their primary technology vendor in the event their vendor’s performance starts to degrade in one country or region. The goal for retailers, York says, is to proactively manage vendor relationships by regularly talking to them about improving performance and spotting potential performance problems sooner.

“Just because retailers don’t directly manage a thirdparty technology does not mean they have to be passive when it comes to maintaining their performance,” he says. “Retailers need to ask questions about their providers’ disaster recovery plans and operational redundancies. It’s in retailers’ best interests to hold their technology partners accountable.”

As part of its web, or cloud-based, performance network,
Dyn provides load balancing to redirect traffic during peak periods and unexpected traffic spikes to prevent performance slowdowns.

While there were some high-profile outages during the weekend of Black Friday through Cyber Monday, Dyn’s managed DNS network had 100% availability, as it has had since 2007, according to York.

“Online retailers are keenly focused on conversion rates,” he says. “With the typical conversion rate below 5%, even a small increase can significantly impact revenue.”

For example, if an online retailer with $10 million in annual sales and a 4% conversion rate could increase that rate to 4.1%, the revenue increase would be $250,000 per year. “Site performance is one of the top reasons consumers bounce from a site and it is one factor that online retailers can address with Internet performance solutions,” he says.

Dyn also provides insights into how data routing and site performance impacts consumers connecting to a retailer’s web site. Dyn supplies retailers with performance data across their entire Internet infrastructure, including data centers and cloud-based service providers, and domain name system services.

“Site performance is the bridge to achieving more sales and having a better brand reputation,” York says.

Handling returns

Retailers can also bolster their reputations by finding ways to make the returns process easier for shoppers. That can include identifying ways to turn post-holiday returns into new sales. Analyzing when the majority of post-holiday returns take place and the reasons they occur can help retailers suggest alternative items.

“Pitching cross-sell or upsell opportunities to customers returning items can lead to new sales,” says Bigcommerce’s Schulz. “A lot of times consumers will return apparel because they aren’t sure how to accessorize it or they prefer a gadget that has more bells and whistles. In many cases suggesting an alternative item can lead to a bigger ticket sale.”

Making sure product images accurately display the items’ color and features can also cut down on returns, and that’s something retailers can improve upon throughout the year as they prepare for the next holiday season. “If nothing else, making returns as frictionless as possible can lead to a sale further down the road. 95% of consumers say they will shop with a retailer after a return if they have a positive experience returning the item,” Schulz says.

One of the simplest ways for retailers to boost holiday sales is to stay focused on providing the best customer experience possible across customer touch points all year long. “Providing a delightful customer experience all year is what makes retailers relevant,” Schultz says. “It is also what makes a brand memorable during the holiday shopping season.”

This article was originally published in Internet Retailer magazine. 

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