#!How retailers weathered the storm
Mobile sales rule on Black Friday and Cyber Monday
The dust is still settling in the aftermath of a record five-day online shopping period, starting on Thanksgiving Day and ending on Cyber Monday. Many online retailers made huge profits, a few took damaging performance hits and site delays, and sales from smartphones and tablets skyrocketed.
“This year, sales were really spread out over a five-day period,” said Tom Lounibos, CEO of cloud-based testing provider SOASTA. “We saw heavy, heavy traffic throughout and buying up over 20% across the board.”
SOASTA has done site load and performance testing for the majority of the year on its online retail clients, including Best Buy, GAP, Hallmark, Mattel and Old Navy. It also monitored traffic and user load throughout the five-day rush using real user monitoring (RUM) tools.
Winners and losers
“The word of the year is mobile,” Lounibos said. “We’re seeing something like a quarter of our clients’ online sales coming from mobile, and much higher amounts of people within that moving to tablets.”
While online retailers made plenty of money over the Black Friday rush, mobile is the biggest winner of all. On Cyber Monday alone, mobile sales grew 55.4% from 2012. For Walmart.com, one of the biggest online retailers out there, mobile accounted for 55% of their traffic on Black Friday.
On the site crash and delay front, Black Friday and the holiday weekend were relatively quiet. Cyber Monday, on the other hand, brought some trouble.
The biggest loser was Motorola. The Motorola Mobility site crashed Monday under a crushing load of online shoppers seeking a US$150 discount deal on the Moto X smartphone.
Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside apologized in a blog post for the outage, admitting the company underestimated demand and skimped on testing.
“First, we misjudged the overwhelming consumer demand for Moto X, which was far greater than we expected,” he wrote. “Second, our pre-sale site testing was not sufficiently extensive. Testing failed to reveal weaknesses caused by large volumes of concurrent orders flowing through the MotoMaker customization engine.”
Motorola wasn’t the only site to experience Cyber Monday hiccups, though. Keynote Systems, an online testing and SaaS provider, noticed some major performance delays as it tracked end-to-end shopping across desktops, tablets and smartphones. Here are the greatest hits:
• HP’s desktop and mobile site performance slowed down significantly for the better part of Cyber Monday, with 30% slower transactions mostly localized in the search process and in adding items to users’ carts.
• Sony Style also dealt with a performance slowdown for two hours, with the Product Details page taking 80-90 seconds to load. The Sony Style tablet also started having timeouts at the 300-second mark, because users were getting the full 1.3MB desktop page served up to them.
• Overstock.com’s desktop site took performance hit as well on Monday morning, with slow response times on the Category and Product Details pages.
• Office Depot’s smartphone site took an overall performance hit in the morning hours that couldn’t be isolated to any particular page or app.
“The sites that tend to have problems are the ones that treat testing like a last-minute firestorm,” Lounibos said. “Testing used to be the obscure bastard child of IT, but now it’s the crown prince.”
He explained that testing can’t be saved for the end anymore, because the various components of mobile and Web apps built around APIs make load impact infinitely more complex. He talked about how cloud servers and computing have improved the speed, scale and efficiency of modern testing.
“It used to take a customer six to eight weeks to do a small load test, with, say, 4,000 concurrent users; to build the test and analyze the results,” Lounibos said. “Cloud computing changed everything, it changed how mobile and Web apps are tested, probably forever.”
More than a million servers in 100 different geographic locations simulate hundreds of thousands of users under different network conditions to account for latency and user experience, and thousands of tests are done over the course of six to seven months to prepare for this five-day online shopping spree.
During the height of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Lounibos talked about how SOASTA uses RUM, or what he calls “Doppler Retail” to track every user on a retailer’s website or mobile app.
“There’s this whole new category of cached real user [monitoring]…that tracks actual customer experience and latency,” he said. “We can see the storm coming. A guy shopping on his tablet in Kansas City might be experiencing more latency than someone on a desktop in New York City, so we can auto-provision more servers or change load configuration settings to make sure he doesn’t abandon his shopping cart.”
Reading the trend lines
Aside from the undeniable growth of mobile, one of the biggest trends Lounibos has identified by looking at this year’s online retail season is the significance of marketing-manufactured “events,” like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, combined with incentives.
“The triggering device for Cyber Monday is free shipping,” Lounibos said. “Events themselves are meaningless without discounts and deals as incentives. I can’t see retailers limiting events like this to Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Think about our client Hallmark. For them, Valentine’s Day is the Super Bowl. As events like this grow, retailers will put more stress on IT to deliver user experience.”
Lounibos also sees the trend lines of continuous testing, deployment and delivery continuing to grow along with online and mobile sales, all catering to user experience.
“If customers were going into a store and the deal changed or there were long lines, they’d still buy the item,” he said. “That doesn’t work online. Volatile performance matters. If the site is slow and users are having trouble finding or buying what they want, consumers are three clicks away from another brand.”