Will this year's Cyber Monday be bigger than last year's? Definitely. But retailers large and small also know this: Their business will suffer if the Website or the many IT systems behind it can't handle the load.
Slowdowns and outages on the unofficial kickoff of the online shopping holiday season must be avoided. Last year saw a 19 percent increase in online sales on Cyber Monday, but many retail sites weren't up to task, according to performance monitoring software company Compuware.
Compuware's Gomez Performance Satisfaction Index (GPSI) showed that 92 percent of the top 50 US retailers experienced a decline in shoppers' estimated satisfaction from November 21 to December 25 when compared to a non-holiday baseline.
In particular, sites with content-rich pages, or ones using lots of third-party plug-ins -- e.g., ad services, social networks, and user tracking -- ran into trouble. The result? The average page download took slightly over 10 seconds. Two seconds or less is the usual target for shopping sites.
"A few weeks ago, the operations executive of a major Web commerce site told me 'Cyber Monday,' was a myth," Randy Clark, CMO of UC4 Software, an enterprise IT process automation company, said in a phone interview last week. "He told me his traffic starts increasing between the third week of October and doubles by the end of the year."
But here's the key: that traffic increase becomes the new normal. "The traffic surges and it never goes down from that," Clark said, relating what the executive told him.
With more than 2,000 customers worldwide, Clark is in a good position to feel the pulse of online retailers. He said many of them, obviously anxious about the start of the holiday shopping season, contact UC4 around this time of year, asking questions about scalability or requesting software upgrades.
Are they ready for Cyber Monday? Says Clark: "I don't think they know."
Automation platforms, like UC4's, which manage and monitor interconnected computer programs, obviously help companies respond to problems faster than manual procedures. But Clark was quick to say that even this doesn't guarantee clear sailing.
"Every year we go to a depth we've never been to, and experience things we've never seen before," he said. Making preparations in such an environment is extremely difficult, he said.
Companies worry about three kinds of breakdowns related to high traffic and data loads, Clark said: transaction processing, when the backend can't reconcile with the bank for processing; analytics, when data can't be pulled into predictive models; and the Website load, when the site's functionality breaks down under heavy use.
"Gartner says 80 percent of problems happen when you do new things," Clark noted. "That is, when your innovation cycles are faster than the reliability testing you can do."
Given this, his advice to pre-holiday IT teams is to do as much forecasting, capacity, and load-testing as possible, and then lock down Website changes as much as possible ahead of Cyber Monday. "Be very careful deploying new things," he said.
Ensuring 24/7 availability is paramount because e-commerce retail customers aren't especially loyal, according to Harris Interactive's 2011 Customer Experience Impact Report. The survey commissioned by CRM vendor RightNow Technologies found that 89 percent of consumers turned to a competitor after a bad customer experience.
Forrester Research predicts 2012 US online holiday sales will hit $68.4 billion, a 15 percent increase over 2011. That's 3 percent higher than the expected overall annual online retail growth rate.
Behind the increase, Forrester contends, are increasing numbers of consumers choosing the Web over physical stores, as well as the rise of mobile commerce.
What's more, Forrester estimates these shoppers will spend 12 percent more money online as they hunt for discounts and deals. That is, as long as retail Websites can handle the traffic.