“A concentrated spike in mobile traffic triggered issues that led us to shut down BestBuy.com in order to take proactive measures to restore full performance.”
That was the party line from Best Buy spokeswoman Amy von Walter, after the company’s website failed in the late morning hours of Black Friday 2014. With that, Best Buy joins Motorola, Kohls, and a short but elite list of brands who have struggled to keep up with the mass of frenzied online holiday shoppers.
If you are interested in the play-by-play, there are a number of great articles covering details. We found stories on Ars Technica and Mail Online to be particularly helpful in understanding various issues from the day, including:
- The irony of HP’s website failure, as a provider of cloud services and computing infrastructure
- Cabela’s website implosion, resulting in website visitors being instructed to call in orders over the phone
- The impact that Black Friday (an event focused around the American holiday of Thanksgiving) has in other countries including the UK
- Other disruptions at FootLocker, John Lewis, Tesco, Argos, Boots, and of course, Best Buy
We may never know the exact causes of these failures. However, we can certainly draw some conclusions that will help us prepare for the rest of the 2014 shopping season, and 2015 beyond that.
1. Your mobile site/app is inextricably linked to your website
There was a time when your mobile site acted as a kind of walled garden, allowing mobile users to access independent content running on independent infrastructure. Well, if Best Buy’s experiences this past weekend show us anything, it’s that we can’t think about these groups of users as separate entities anymore. And the truth is: why should we? There’s not really such a thing as a “mobile user.” There are only shoppers who use a mix of PCs and mobile devices – as well as physical, in-store presence – to shop, compare, and buy. It’s called omni-channel: the same visitors, responding to the same promotions, buying the same products – through different channels.
If you aren’t doing it already, make sure you understand how spikes in traffic through one medium affect all the other users on your website. Run what-if scenarios and comprehensive load tests (including “mobile users”) to dig into these complex interactions.
2. Complex websites require sophisticated support
Modern eCommerce websites employ a large variety of technologies and componentry – but one thing they all share is complexity. Catalogs, carts, advertisements, personalization, mobile, content delivery networks… there’s a lot of tech packed into that user experience you are delivering to your customers.
To keep your website up and running under periods of high stress and uncertain demand, you need to make sure that your QA team and your Operations team are working in lock-step. Deploy the right set of tools, including load testing software and performance monitoring software, and work on cross-team communication and information sharing. Because even if you prepare for a disaster, its only a well-functioning team that can find it, fix it, and recover from it quickly.
3. Website crashes are mainstream news
Every year, as Black Friday rolls around, we wonder who will be the next Walmart (2011) or Kohls (2012). Black Friday outages make it to renowned, mainstream media outlets like the Wall Street Journal. And of course, the news makes its way through social media as well:
A website crash doesn’t just hurt your revenues; it hurts your brand.
Better Luck on Super Saturday
Many retail experts expect this year’s Super Saturday (the Saturday before Christmas) to be even bigger than Black Friday, thanks to the impact of opening stores on Thanksgiving, extending deals into the Black Friday weekend, and the continued growth in online shopping. Let’s hope these retailers are better prepared – or they may have to contend with an unruly digital mob.