A lesson to be learned from Black Friday/Cyber Monday

* Make stress testing a priority

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Back in early August I wrote about outsourcing load testing to get online retail sites ready for the Christmas season - see “Testing if your shopping site is ready for the Christmas onslaught”. Well the Christmas shopping season is upon us and the performance results are in from two of the largest online shopping days of the year - Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Black Friday, the Friday after Thanksgiving and the busiest shopping day of the year, is so called because it is the day that most retailers go from a loss (being in the red) to profitability (being in the black). While this is the largest shopping day for brick and mortar retail, it is also a very busy day for online shopping. Cyber Monday is the Monday following Black Friday. It is often the largest online shopping day of the year as people get back to work and use their office Internet connections to shop online.

Keynote Systems, one of the largest service providers for Web site testing, uses their technology and infrastructure in 10 U.S. cities and one European location to monitor the performance of a number of online retail sites during the Christmas shopping season. Keynote measured online retail performance for over 30 popular retail sites for Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

The results for Black Friday showed most retailers being ready to handle the high volumes and consumers receiving good performance for searches and checkout operations. However, not all retailers handled the high volumes. Wal-Mart.com had the most serious issues so far this holiday season, when their site experienced severe slowdowns beginning at 4:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Black Friday. The site eventually became unavailable to the majority of users, with normal performance not being re-established until 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time, experiencing more than 10 hours of downtime.

Macys.com also had a severe degradation in performance beginning at 5:00 a.m. Eastern Time on Black Friday, with normal performance restored at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Visitors to the sites recording such downtime or slowdowns would have received error messages or experienced significant slowdowns, with pages taking up to eight times longer to download than normal. Slowdowns most typically affect the online search process or checkout process.

Keynote also noted a spike in demand for the Amazon.com site driven by “flash traffic” to the site shortly after the online retailer announced a promotion for the sale of XBOX 360 on Thursday, Thanksgiving evening. However, Keynote reported that Amazon.com has performed exceedingly well in terms of performance - the speed and reliability of its site - over the course, so far, of the holiday shopping rush.

Cyber Monday saw great performance from the 30+ retailers monitored by Keynote. The problems experienced by a few on Black Friday were not repeated on Cyber Monday. I’m sure there were more than a few sighs of relief at Wal-Mart and Macy's.

For online retailers, uptime equates to store hours and downtime is lost revenue. Wal-Mart’s 10 hours of downtime likely contributed to its missing last year's same store revenue by 1% while most retailers saw on average a 6% increase in sales on Black Friday. While your business may not have as direct a link between revenue and uptime, most businesses are so tied to technology that any downtime is disruptive to productivity and/or customer satisfaction if not directly disruptive to revenue.

You can spend significant money and resources on good outsourced hosting facilities or on redundant power, redundant servers and redundant networks along with hot backup sites. But if your software is not up to the task or your environment cannot handle the volumes, all the redundant hardware in the world will not get you through the problems. Stress testing and re-engineering the bottlenecks is critical. The software and infrastructure necessary to do this testing well is something that can easily be outsourced. So take a lesson from Black Friday, both from the sites that performed and those that struggled, and make stress testing a priority.

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