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How retailers should prepare their e-commerce platform for Christmas

How retailers should prepare their e-commerce platform for Christmas

By Mark Hopwood, Technology and Operations Director, Pod1.

The recent Royal Mail strikes and their continued threat in the run-up to Christmas have struck fear into the nation’s retailers and e-tailers.

Such action is already severely disrupting deliveries at a critical time for the retail industry, which had been expecting a bumper Christmas online after what has been a difficult year for the sector as a whole.

Indeed, research by etail body the IMRG shows that 77% of online retailers believe that strikes by Royal Mail workers will discourage consumers from shopping online in the run-up to Christmas.

It’s certainly thrown the issue of seasonal etailing into sharp relief – and who knows, that might even be a good thing. Because the reality is online retailers are woefully behind their bricks and mortar counterparts when it comes to preparing for Christmas.

Even accounting for the alternative delivery arrangements that IMRG says 60% of members are making, there are other equally vital measures that must be put in place now to ensure a smooth and successful Christmas trading period and lessons they can learn from their bricks-and-mortar counterparts.

1. Resolve outstanding issues

It’s about making sure that all outstanding issues are resolved, not making big changes to your platform in the run-up to such a critical trading time.

Traders should make sure that transactional websites are not just creatively good, but that operations will be able to stand up to the stress. It’s a good idea to be constructing realistic volume and stress testing as early as possible – now, if you have not yet done so.

It may reveal that the business will need extra capacity. If so, then extra servers can be commissioned – as long as you’ve left time to do so.

Next year, we’ll see the rise of more pooled cloud-based technologies to better provide for short term increases in capacity, but for Christmas 2009 you’ll need at least a week – and often more – to commission those extra servers.

Don’t be tempted to make massive changes to your ‘shop front’ – be sensible about big-scale changes to your site. Sure, it might sound tempting to have an all-new site for Christmas but realistically you won’t have time to plan for it properly, or iron out any last minute tweaks or service requirements.

2. Preparation

Nor do you want to take your eye off the ball when it comes to servicing customers at Christmas. It should be your busiest time of the year, so you really don’t want to be focusing on projects; try instead over the summer, or in the early, pre-Easter months.

Strike action notwithstanding, Christmas this year will be bigger than Christmas last year online, itself a record-breaker at an estimated £4.7bn over December 2008, up 14% on the year earlier.

3. It’s all in the delivery

That also means sorting through the related offline service issues. Lots of retailers will look to offer an enhanced delivery service throughout Christmas (through whichever carrier); expect more within the M25 offering same day service this year.

If you are going to be offering same or next day deliveries right up to the wire in a bid to entice those last-minute shoppers you must, must ensure that not just your website will still be up and transactional but that your whole business operation stays up.

That means not only having the ability to service and fix your website, but also the means to integrate such service levels throughout, from making sure orders get through to the warehouse, and then on to be shipped. It’s a different kind of service commitment than people are used to getting through their e-commerce provider.

4. Not just for Christmas

Remember, too, that Christmas doesn’t stop at the 25th, with the sales shoppers starting in earnest as soon as the last gifts are wrapped.

The Interactive Media in Retail Group, a body which represents online retailers, reported that shoppers spent £102 million on Christmas Day. And Boxing Day was the busiest single day for online retailers in 2008 when traffic was almost double the level on Christmas Day.

At which point, and with shoppers trawling for bargains well into the New Year, you might well resolve to start planning ahead for Christmas 2010!

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