The holiday buying season is nearly upon us. (Okay, it's already upon us.) But it's still not too late to make sure that your e-commerce operation is fully optimized for what everyone hopes will set a record for online sales.
Consumer confidence is up, spending forecasts are optimistic, GDP is on the rise ... much seems right or at least better than it has been recently with the economic world in the United States.
Jupiter Research recently predicted that online holiday retail sales will be $17 billion, a 21 percent increase over online consumer spending in 2002.
So, how can you make sure that you get your share?
Herewith, some ideas, suggestions, tips, techniques all designed to let you do best what you are online for in the first place to sell.
- Test your site early and test it often. Carol Carpenter, director of product management at Keynote Systems, says that you should always plan ahead to make sure your site can handle major launches, seasonal promotions and marketing initiatives. And clearly if your e-commerce site is ever going to be stressed, it will be during the holiday shopping frenzy.
- Also test the integrity of your content. We're not about talking how honest your ad copy is, although that would be nice. In developer-speak this kind of integrity refers to misspelled words, broken links, busted pictures, etc. Carpenter says that any or all of those things can lead to a poor professional appearance and a bad customer experience.
- Make sure your images load quickly. That's pretty basic, of course, but optimized images are key to many product sales and a slow loading page may simply drive your customers to click on to the next site. You want to minimize page download time. Carpenter says that "what visitors or customers experience at an online store not only has a major impact on their buying behavior, but also molds their image of the brand itself."
- Make sure you're up to snuff on patches. Tom Ohlsson, vice president of marketing and business development at Xaffire, recommends that you install, verify, test and lock down all patches and upgrades now. "Do not attempt to install patches or upgrades during the busy on-line season," he says.
- Load test your e-commerce site. You're expecting (or at least hoping for) a rush of customers. So clearly it would be a good idea to determine how much traffic it can support. Does it match what marketing is saying you can expect? Ohlsson says that now is the time to load test and optimize your load balancer, Web servers, application servers and so on. He also recommends installation of appropriate transaction monitoring software during the load-testing phase, if it's not already in place. Carpenter recommends making sure your load test uses a real-world methodology that accurately reflects the rate and pattern by which your visitors arrive and leave your Web site.
- Create sample (synthetic) transactions. These can simulate expected customer traffic and Web transactions and "push" these transactions out to geographically dispersed beacons, Ohlsson says. By running synthetic transactions periodically, say every 5 to 15 minutes, "you can identify problems with your e-commerce site before your customers call you and tell you about them." Ohlsson says you should be able to identify, isolate, verify and correct problems throughout your entire e-commerce infrastructure before your potential customers call and complain about poor web site performance, giving you the competitive edge you'll need during the busy holiday online shopping season.
- Check the performance of your network provider. You can do this by looking at a site that is similar to yours in your area but connected to another network, Carpenter says. And you should benchmark your site's performance against your competitor's online performance for key transactions. The 8-second rule no longer applies in a world of immediate online gratification, according to Carpenter. The benchmark is set by your competitor, and in a fiercely competitive business, every second matters.
- Add cross-sell and up-sell opportunities throughout your site. (That means, for example, suggesting table linens on the dinnerware, silverware and glassware pages.) David Fry, founder and CEO of e-commerce consulting firm Fry Inc., suggests that you also leverage search results to cross-sell and up-sell. Avoid the 'No Results Found' page; it can be a dead end for users. Offer instead "Top Gift Suggestions" or "Best Sellers" to improve sales and drive "impulse" purchase opportunities.
- Make it easy to find and contact customer service in the form of a real person. Providing an easy-to-find phone number on the site helps online shoppers feel more secure in purchasing online, especially those who have not done so in the past, Fry says. Also, clearly state your company's return policy. And of course, remind customers of the last day it's possible to order and receive a product in time for the Christmas holiday.
- Make your search function more effective. Retailers know that many people don't browse through a site, like they might a store, Fry says. They go right to the search box on the home page and enter the item they are looking for. Your search function should accommodate common misspellings by returning similarly spelled items and/or your site's most popular search terms.
Here are just a few of the many companies and sites that offer help with integrity and optimization issues:
- Keynote Systems provides a variety of outsourced services for testing, monitoring and improving e-business operations.
- Xaffire provides tools needed to monitor, measure and improve the end-user experience that an e-commerce business delivers.
- Fry provides e-commerce strategy, usability, design, application development and data analytics.
- Mercury Interactive provides what it calls Business Technology Optimization software and services.
- BMC Software calls its offerings Business Service Management which includes infrastructure monitoring.
- Other companies in the monitoring and optimization space include Empirix, Veritas Quest Software Dot-Com Monitor, Nastel, bayMountain, InternetSeer and AlertSite, among a host of others.
You may need different applications and services depending on the size of your e-commerce operation and your specific needs, but there is clearly no shortage of companies available to help. And consulting firms abound.
Adapted from ECommerce-Guide.com.