Are your retail IT systems and processes ready for peak trading?
Ever since ecommerce channels have become a significant revenue stream for retailers, IT and ecommerce directors have been asked by the business: Are we ready for peak trading? With the addition of Black Friday to the retail calendar, on top of Christmas and Summer peaks, this question is asked by the business more and more often.
Answering this question with credibility can be a challenge, especially if there have been issues in the past that have impacted on retail trading.
The increased focus on in-store digital innovation and omni-channel retail has meant that systems’ stability and performance is more critical than ever before and the question: Are we ready for peak trading? is no longer related to one channel and set of systems, but has significance throughout the enterprise.
Proving that you are truly ready for peak can be a costly, complex business that can lead retailers to either hope for the best by throwing hardware at the problem, or spend a lot of money on performance testing in the belief that this will truly prove that systems can handle peak trading.
But how can you tell that you are ready? Or ready enough? From our experience of seeing many retailers go through peak we believe your level of peak readiness depends on the following factors.
Accuracy of retail peak trading traffic estimates. Peak trading estimates need to be as accurate as possible and take into account historical traffic data, planned marketing activity and any other data that is known to impact on peak. Once the peak trading traffic estimates are calculated and accepted by the business, a buffer can be added depending on the level of certainty and cautiousness.
Knowledge of bottlenecks in your systems architecture and applications. Bottlenecks can occur in software, hardware, integration layers, and third party and backend systems such as order management or warehouse management applications. Bottlenecks can also occur in data, for example, running out of order numbers. Technical teams need to be aware of these bottlenecks and have plans in place to address them in a timely manner, before peak.
Ability to scale quickly. Running hardware for peak trading can be expensive if it is not needed all year round. Scaling before and during retail peak needs to be done quickly and efficiently. How well and quickly your ecommerce technology can scale will affect how well you can respond to changes in traffic. Cloud-based infrastructure as a service makes scaling easier than traditional hardware cluster-based approaches, and can be considered as an option to manage scale if your applications are designed to work with it.
Quality of performance tests. Performance tests need to mirror real-life activity as accurately as possible. The further performance tests deviate from real-life patterns the less insightful the tests will be in finding true bottlenecks or issues. It is critical that performance tests are run on production copies of hardware, software, data and configuration. Scheduled jobs should also be factored into performance testing as a common cause of peak issues is batch jobs impacting on databases or applications.
Solid definition of change management processes. Change management processes are important in making sure retail systems are ready for peak trading. Any planned changes to production hardware, software, data or configuration should be taken into account when performance testing and when planning for peak. A major software deployment just before peak is very risky, as is a major change in planned marketing activity. IT and the business need to work in partnership to make sure that change is well managed and the communication of changes reaches the right people – be it IT, the business or key third parties.
Solid definition of issue management processes and accountability. Issues will always occur during peak. Issue management processes are key to making sure that problems are addressed quickly before they impact on revenue. Doing this requires key third parties, the business and IT to be fully engaged in issue management, to all know their accountabilities and responsibilities and to know the processes and escalations that are needed. A dress rehearsal of issues is a good way to ensure everyone knows their role and what to do when the pressure is on.
Profile of peak readiness within teams. Peak needs to have a high profile in every team it touches, from C-level in the retailer to third party on-call engineers. Everyone should know the importance of responding quickly to issues – be they the wrong content on a site to systems being down.
Availability of investment to support peak readiness activities. Being ready for peak often requires investment in performance testing, hardware, third party resources, internal resources and time. Retailers must be willing to invest to address peak readiness and to know what they are getting back for that investment.
Timely consideration of retail peak readiness. The sooner peak readiness is on the agenda, the more time is available to test, plan and rehearse in preparation.
There is always a risk that something will go wrong during peak that will impact on revenue. Thorough preparation, attacking known risks and a clear readiness plan, with C-level support and a high profile in the business, are key to making sure your business is retail peak ready.