How to avoid missed opportunities and gain the competitive advantage during Black Friday

Terry Hunter, VP of ecommerce and client strategy at Astound Commerce, reveals his tips on how to prepare and how buinesses can cope with the shopping frenzy known as Black Friday…

Black Friday is still over a month away, but many retailers have already taken steps to prepare. And when you consider how popular this particular shopping event has become in recent years, it’s easy to see why.

Following the success of Black Friday 2014 and a steady increase in online shopping generally among the UK public, there’s an expectation this year’s sales will reach never before seen levels. But, while this growth offers a significant opportunity for retailers and ecommerce players, it also represents a major challenge.

A high-profile event like Black Friday not only attracts hordes of consumers, it creates more competition. So, in order to take advantage of the opportunity an event like this represents, and avoid suffering lost opportunities or missed sales conversions, retailers in 2015 have two equally important considerations to take into account – website performance and the impact of social selling.

Putting social to work

Faced with stiff competition, it’s vital to ensure a high level of interest around Black Friday sale lines. To make this a reality in today’s hyper-competitive online retail landscape, brands need to make the most of all assets at their disposal. Yes, it’s important to focus resources on website development and ensure users get a consistent high quality experience. But it’s also essential to effectively use content across social media and other channels to act as a competitive differentiator, build brand loyalty, and contribute to the overall sales funnel.

To this end, retailers would be wise to consider their social media efforts and how this ties into the overarching sales strategy, driving more users to a retailer’s website and thereby increasing conversions during a period where more people are shopping.

Combining targeted social media promotion and brand-building content marketing into Black Friday promotional efforts has another inherent advantage, as this approach can be built on a bank of existing customer data. By using this information and pairing it with tailored sale suggestions based on a customer’s previous buying history, it’s possible to drive additional traffic and conversions.

Optimising for the modern user experience

Once brands have customers on board and are driving increased traffic from social media, it’s important to make sure their ecommerce website can stand the heat. It’s a well-documented fact that a reduction in page loading times can lead to an increase in conversion rates, making site functionality incredibly important.

It should be put at the forefront of planning efforts around a major high traffic event like Black Friday, and retailers should take steps to ensure their websites are as optimised as possible.

Compressing resources to help reduce server workload is an important first step. Those resources should also be optimised for web viewing rather than serving up hi-res images and assets to visitors, which will create problems during periods of high traffic. The best way to approach this is to work with an ecommerce platform expert in the months leading up to an event like Black Friday, ensuring the website and checkout process is optimised and free of bottlenecks that could result in lost sales.

Mobile first

Since there’s no avoiding the fact mobile devices now represent a major segment of traffic, it would be foolish not to ensure ecommerce sites are optimised for mobile users too. In the same way each individual sales channel is important, so is optimising the user experience for different mobile devices. This is especially true when you consider today’s shoppers aren’t always influenced to make a purchase by one sales channel alone. They might start their search on a mobile before ultimately buying what they want on their PC, or even in store.

To avoid missed opportunities and lost sales along the way, it’s imperative retailers give consumers a consistent and high-quality experience across the board, including mobile. Up until a few years ago optimising an ecommerce website for mobile devices was a competitive advantage. Now, though, it’s a necessity.

Test, test, and test again

However, there’s more to preparing an ecommerce website for major calendar events than merely putting steps in place to improve the user experience. Testing also has an important role to play.

Optimisation is important, of course, but it’s worthless without appropriate stress testing to avoid falling foul of high traffic periods. Retailers should carry out a full inspection of their website and IT systems to make sure they can cope with inevitable spikes in traffic volumes, to avoid brand damage or similar issues that retailers suffered last year when customers were forced to sit in long holding queues.

Retailers must understand which assets are likely to fail during periods of high traffic, which means stress testing doesn’t stop with the website. Granted, it’s the first port of call for a consumer and is the primary sales portal for a retailer during this period. But, it’s also vital that all other parts of the sales funnel, including back-end systems, can handle a significantly increased volume of orders.

There’s obviously an inherent benefit to developing a contingency plan for volume surges too. But with a fully optimised website these types of issues should be few and far between, even when faced with exponential traffic during Black Friday.

Terry Hunter is VP of ecommerce and client strategy at ecommerce agency Astound Commerce.

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