Load peaks in e-commerce: 10 tips for a smooth high season

Sudden growth can become frustrating if, for example, your online shop is not prepared for such load peaks. Instead of bringing in the year’s sales, you’re suddenly in trouble: a website loading (or stalling), customer complaints about late deliveries or warehouse clutter. 

Introduction: what are peak loads?

A peak load means that significantly more requests or page views are counted than usual for a certain period. This is particularly the case on seasonal events such as Christmas or Black Friday.

This year, many online shops had to cope with a previously unplanned rush due to the corona pandemic: Due to the shutdown of the retail trade, online trading flourished, and there was a massive demand for products of all kinds.

While this change in shopping behaviour was understandable and many online shops should have been happy, others quickly encountered hurdles and limits: If resources were insufficient, the increased demand could lead to long server response times or, in extreme cases, even to a refusal of service due to overload.

Long loading times or server failures are fatal for online retail, however: Interested parties can only reach the range of goods poorly or not at all so that they give up disappointed and look around the competition.

You can take essential precautions now so that you do not have these and other problems in the first place. The preparations usually take a few weeks until everything is in place and the orders process as smoothly as possible.

Ten efficient tips:

1.Automate and digitize in advance

There is no doubt that it is an advantage for you to be digitally set up. Nevertheless, the following applies: Products, stocks, orders and processing – manual work often predominates in the cooperation with the supplier companies, which of course does not have to be. Talk to them about automation and digitization options at an early stage and in quiet phases and not just before the start of a seasonal business.

Also, look around to see if any tools will make your work easier. Especially if you manage your online shop on your own, you can gain valuable time here and at the same time more easily compare relevant data without having to rework each time manually.

2.Adjust your technology to peak loads

Perform load tests early on. They are a diagnostic tool to measure and evaluate the availability of applications in different access scenarios. That is why they are one of your most important instruments and serve quality assurance, i.e. prevention, improvement, optimization and recovery, emergency management.

For example, when it comes to starting a web portal or preparing the e-commerce offering for the Advent business, load tests are a central component of comprehensive risk management and performance monitoring. For the IT administrator, they are a valuable aid for documentation and proof, for example, of compliance with SLA standards.

3.Integrate external service providers in good time

If you want to use external call centres at peak times, you have to prepare your data and systems for this. The service provider should be able to answer first-level questions such as “Is there a lid for the pot?”. So you have to be briefed accordingly. Even better: Create an FAQ area on the website that answers the most straightforward questions and thus takes the pressure off customer service.

A help centre with a chatbot could also help here, saves resources and prevents unnecessary calls or returns.

4.Optimize logistics internally and externally

According to media reports, up to 60,000 truck drivers are missing in Germany. You should therefore not only negotiate with your freight forwarders or logistics service providers when necessary but secure right conditions with long terms in good time. Comparative figures from previous years, combined with a forecast of the shop’s growth development over the past few months, will help you here. 

But you should not only manage the external logistics correctly but also the internal logistics: Your warehouse should not be a construction site in the most real sense of the word. A well-stocked warehouse and, above all, a structured inventory and update are essential for adequate preparation and optimized shipping times.

Because if employees have to spend hours looking for an item or if it is even wrongly offered online as not available or available, it annoys customers, employees and, last but not least, yourself. A well-functioning ERP system is essential here. 

5.Shift the risk of goods to third parties

With so-called dropshipping, you can enormously relieve order processing and warehouse utilization at peak times. Dropshipping means that you process the orders, but the goods are then shipped directly via a third party such as a supplier or manufacturer.

However, it must be ensured here that manufacturers and suppliers apply the same quality standards to customer deliveries as you do yourself. If delivery is too late, customers call you first, which leads to load peaks and further stresses.

The maxim above of digitization and automation also applies here – see point

6.Maintain product data

Use the quiet phases of the year, for example, January, to describe goods using 3D planners, AR tools, videos, images, benchmarks and text information in such a way that your target group can get a good picture of them. In case of doubt, the following rule applies: Better not to order than to return.

Of course, the following also applies: Check whether files that are too large such as videos on the website are not causing loading problems. Read more about this under point 8.

But not only returns can be reduced by well (and honestly) maintained product datasheets. Sometimes orders fail because customers cannot find valuable information about the desired product straight away and then buy elsewhere. Sometimes a quick comparison of two products can help here – the best-selling and the least-selling: Do you see differences in the level of detail in the product data? Often you will find that this little adjustment screw can work wonders!

7.Use customer data

Maintain your existing customer database and also use all levers that help to rectify this. This includes moving purchases to quieter periods: This is achieved with the help of vouchers and incentives, such as discount codes, which can be redeemed for another period.

Inform your customers in advance that due to a large number of inquiries, it may take a little longer before they get an answer, or the deliveries are sent. Advance information is helpful to prevent questions.

Incidentally, in addition to a customer newsletter, social media channels have long been an acceptable means of getting in touch with (potential) customers and informing them about the status of orders, delays or discount campaigns. Such actions appear human and make you personable. Of course, sensitive data does not belong in addressing these channels.

However, it is essential only to request the data that you need. The GDPR makes some clear guidelines here, but it also leaves room for manoeuvre. Example: Do you often send individual newsletters on specific topics? Then it makes sense to know information such as shoe size, favourite colour or other preferences. For a normal ordering process, however, these seldom help you, as you can never know whether the person is ordering for yourself or others. If you do not need for the data, you accumulate unnecessary data ballast.

8.Avoid hidden data hogs.

But let’s take a closer look at what eats up a lot of data. This includes multimedia content that is intended to make the product attractive, such as high-resolution product videos. Also, some encryptions guarantee data security, but at the same time increase the load on the host systems.

In the first step, the data delivery and the operation calculation should, therefore, be decoupled. This enables broad scalability.

Even small shop operators should divide the server services into service groups, for example in web, database, download and backend servers. This does not necessarily have to be done on dedicated servers. It can also be virtualized.

If a larger e-commerce platform already exists, an extension can usually be done very quickly. If the space requirement increases, an expansion of the infrastructure into the cloud is already optimally prepared. With these precautions, every shop provider should at least be able to prepare well for the predictable seasonal load peaks such as in the run-up to Christmas or Black Friday.

Many of these precautions are one-off tasks that you will benefit from as soon as there is an unpredictable rush to the online shop, as was the case this year due to the corona crisis. Whether a second COVID 19 wave can be expected or not plays a subordinate role: The demand for products that can be bought online is growing. Many sceptics of the older generation have enjoyed the advantages of online shopping, and for all younger generations, it has long been normal anyway.

9.Reduce returns

The processing of returns also costs valuable and often the most capacities in peak times. If the worst comes to the worst, be more accommodating than usual in the high season. Usually, you will travel more cheaply if you grant discounts so that customers can keep the goods and do without a return. Therefore, do not advertise with free returns during peak times.

What pays off, however, are more extended payment periods. Then interested parties can decide later who are still unsure whether they want to keep a product or not. This can pay off, especially when buying gifts on public holidays: a one-month return period instead of just 14 days also eases the load peaks, as your customers can shop several weeks before the holiday.

10.Bring the team on board.

Communicate right from the start that all employees will be blocked from vacation during an exceptional period. However, this only works with a corresponding corporate culture in which employees pull in the same direction.

Together with everyone involved, think about how overtime that has built up in peak loads can be compensated for in quieter times. For example, you can offer to “dump” overtime hours that have not yet been worked before the expected peak loads so that not all of them ask for time off at the same time after the significant work. In the short period between Black Friday and Christmas business, you may not be able to meet all inquiries and provoke displeasure among your employees. 

Categories: Digital Marketing, E-commerce, Marketing

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