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Nov. 27, 2013

Black Friday and Cyber Monday: A Cheat Sheet for E-Commerce

Web-based retail businesses look forward to this week all year: The holiday shopping season that starts with Black Friday buoys profits for the rest of the year. But managing a successful retail business on the web requires, more than anything else, disciplined planning of important cloud assets.

Below are some of the industry’s best practices for preparing for these important days.

Get a Head Start on Load Balancing

The most important task, according to Jeffrey Kaplan, managing director at THINKstrategies, is to ensure that retail businesses have sufficient load-balancing network strategies to support the spike in traffic and its high transaction demands. Load balancing is a strategy with which the computing workload is optimized between different resources (like servers and large PCs) in order to minimize overload risk and improve speed response times.

Training a team of engineers weeks ahead of Black Friday to focus solely on preparing for huge spikes, helps keep load balancing from losing efficiency. It also means enabling other resource policies throughout the business. In the last few years, many retailers have enabled threshold policies that force the computing system to offload resources when demand reaches the threshold level.

Failing to prepare your company with a load-balancing strategy can lead to disastrous results. During Black Friday in 2008, Sears.com was inundated with traffic that forced the site to shut down for two hours and led to millions of dollars in losses.

Prepare for Mobile Customers

Retail businesses also face significant challenges brought about by mobile computing. Kaplan says the most important mobile hurdle to overcome is to provide "a compelling user experience while ensuring the security, privacy and performance of their e-commerce sites." High-traffic spikes don't have to affect the compelling nature of these features if they are managed with hybrid cloud computing. For example, the front end of a shopping site can be put on the cloud, and the back-end checkout process can be managed by private servers. This ensures better control of personal data and enhances security. It also improves the rate of data loads between servers, speeding up the overall shopping process.

A setup focused on mobile use also helps retailers design for smaller screens, which ensures a simple interface focused on positive emotional design choices, like the use of color. As several reports have noted recently, this type of mobile-user interface design often results in a more refined emotional connection between a company and a customer — and a better relationship usually results in more transactions. According to a report in the Guardian, one retailer expects that the majority of its sales this year will come from mobile devices.

Maintain High Standards of Customer Service

Even if all orders are processed successfully, retailers must offer robust customer service. That means empowering active and responsive personnel. Kaplan says extra personnel is particularly important during huge traffic spikes: "No matter how much technology you deploy to automate a business process, like e-commerce sites, it is always necessary to provide sufficient human resources to respond to help desk questions to satisfy the needs of customers."

Cloud computing businesses offer tools to clients that can help manage customers and can deploy their own experts to communicate processing problems or optimize transactions. But the retailer itself must also plan for different process scenarios. These include establishing a large library of legal procedures and a consistent editorial voice to deal with emails and phone calls.

But the most critical part of customer service during Black Friday and Cyber Monday is clearly defining sale details to everyone in the company. If the marketing department of a sporting goods store determines a pair of Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes will be on sale between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, all of the company's resources (including engineering, management and customer service) must be available and responsive at that time, in case anything goes wrong.

Keep Inventory Stocked and Loaded

Efficient management of inventory also is important. Retailers can connect different stock hangars throughout the world with third-party distributors and transportation and route-planning services. Working together on cloud network-management systems helps businesses find the shortest routes and the most reliable shipment services, which means retailers save money.

Lean on the Data Analytics for Guidance

Real-time analytics can inform a retailer’s strategy and help mitigate crises. Kaplan says analytics "enable a company to better understand, anticipate and satisfy customer demand." Many analytics tools create reports and visual dashboards that pinpoint sales items, such as hot customer demographics, and help determine the success rates of advertising efforts.

Kaplan also believes social networks offer a valuable service to retailers during this period: "Tracking social networks can give a company indication of the buzz surrounding their products and services, which can help them anticipate and satisfy actual demand."

If few people click on your sponsored Twitter ad promoting custom chocolate bars days before Black Friday, there is a good chance they’ll skip buying them, even if they’re on sale.

A Black Friday To-Do List

Below are a few recommended IT check points, with definitions, to prepare your business for Black Friday.

  • Integrated Security: Assures the customer that all transactions will be secure and eliminates apprehension regarding online sales.
  • Automated Provisioning: Reduces the cost of service delivery during a sales period driven by steep price discounts that reduce operating margins.
  • Product and User Targeting: Permits a company to better focus its sales and marketing efforts.
  • Supply Chain Analytics: Warehousing-, distribution- and store-operation data analytics enable a company to properly fulfill orders on time.
  • Storage Backups: This ensures that a company can capture data generated during a spike of activity.
  • Automated Backups: Protects against any lost data due to system failures.

[image: ImageGap/iStock/ThinkStockPhotos]

ABOUT THIS CONTRIBUTOR
Jose is a technology expert with experience in covering cloud computing, startups and enterprise IT.
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