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Talking with...Forrester Research VP and Principal Analyst Brian Walker

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A retailer's thinking these days can be dominated by smartphones, tablet devices, social media, social commerce, new payment systems and numerous other emerging technologies. However, much of that activity ultimately directly impacts the website itself, so retailers cannot afford to overlook fundamentals of running their online business, such as site maintenance, load testing, and replatforming. I talked with Brian Walker, VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, to get his expert views on getting these fundamentals in top shape for 2012.

Our industry was reminded last year that site launches and re-launches in 2011 are no less immune to problems than in early e-commerce days ten, even fifteen, years ago. Anyone who has replatformed empathizes entirely with the huge amount of work involved before – and also after – relaunch. What can we learn as a community from these recent experiences?

Tuning a platform, and even more importantly the integrations with your other systems, is a challenge. Testing methodologies and technology have advanced - there is a lot of rigor there - yet we continue to see new challenges. We need to realize that the traffic is massive, relative to where we were just a few years ago. Customers can now react immediately to an email, a TV ad, or a viral campaign on Facebook on their phone, their tablet, etc. Target’s problems with their Missoni event caught them off guard because the test cases did not anticipate the very high number of items customers put in the cart, together with high conversion rates, and that on top of the spike in traffic from a very successful marketing campaign. By the way, their stores were also ill-prepared, which exacerbated the website’s problems as those customers who lined up at the stores hopped on their smartphones. Hindsight may be 20/20, but it is easy to see how smart people could have missed it. Bottom line - you need to limit the variables in a replatforming project launch, including testing and tuning with modest traffic before peak season. The timing of a launch is important here, but there will be unexpected problems. Plan on them happening and prepare your organization and management for it.

Of course, the $6 billion Cyber Week last December also proved trying for a number of retailers. Are site outages simply a function of too many good deals attracting too many customers - or is there something more fundamental going on?

I think it is difficult to generalize here, but I do think we are at the point where customers are interacting with companies in different ways and we have to adjust how the systems that support web, mobile, and digital interactions and transactions are built. Commerce technology must be hosted in an elastic and scalable environment. How we engineer and test these systems has to evolve, and how we plan and execute our marketing campaigns, has to get much smarter. Blasting your email file, texting all your SMS opt-ins, posting on Twitter, and using a press release to announce some amazing deal may bring down your site. What if Amazon did that with Lady Gaga’s latest album? Well, they did, and their site could not handle it. You need to test, measure, and adjust something like that to carefully monitor the sites ability to handle the traffic. That level of coordination is critical between marketing and the teams who are ensuring the technology is performing as designed.

So, if it isn’t just a matter of load testing, which are some of potential “weak links” that retailers need to find and tune to stabilize their sites?

It is certainly not a matter of just load testing. Everyone has their forecasts and have an idea of what they need to support. Sites get load tested at three to five times the peak forecasted traffic and order volumes. But like the Target Missoni example, it is difficult to account for all the variables in an annual test. Certainly smart business analysts and engineers can anticipate most of the test cases. But if it were just a matter of that, sites would not go down. Everyone needs to own site up-time and performance. Marketers, merchants, web developers, engineers all need to have an eye to what can happen based on their decisions and communicate and work with their hosting support and quality assurance folks.

What’s the best way to diagnose those weak spots in one’s e-commerce system?

Monitoring tools both within the data center and out on the edge are critical to understanding the performance of the commerce systems and integrations. API monitoring tools also have improved and will become increasingly more important. Companies should budget for the analysts and developers to actively debug and tune the system and environment for 2 months after a launch, and schedule regular monitoring times thereafter. Do not make the mistake of doing the big load test with test traffic and orders, launching your site and mobile applications, and then assume everything should be good. The integrations, processes, configurations, and customizations make for a lot of complexity which may not appear immediately or be tested with your test cases.

Overall, what’s your site platform advice to retailers for 2012? What must retailers do – and, perhaps, what should they leave alone if anything?

From a stability and performance standpoint, retailers need to budget for site performance and stability optimization. Budget for disaster recovery services, infrastructure, implementation, and testing. And do not be so aggressive on project launches so close to your critical sales and marketing events. I have advised clients to wait to launch their new site until after the holidays and January clearance sales. This is hard to do when you want to drive the new car instead, but if you have not driven that car and know how well it can perform, you may be better off driving the old one instead until you have a better opportunity to test and tune the new one. Your metrics may actually be better since you are not throwing your customers a curve ball with a redesign during your biggest and most important sales period.

Since it is likely that every retailer at some point may encounter site downtime – for whatever reason – what’s your advice for managing that time period while the site is down? 

If you run the business, educate yourself on the issues, the what-ifs, and be prepared to be the commander-in-chief if something goes wrong. Have a plan for how you will communicate with your vendors, your internal stakeholders, and of course most importantly your customers. Your customer contact center may be the first to know there may be an issue, or maybe today it is your social media marketer who is monitoring Twitter. Heaven forbid it is the CEO who calls up and says “it looks like the site is down." That really happened to me once - don’t let it happen to you. Be prepared with a plan for how you discover, validate, communicate, delegate, and resolve these problems.

Your colleague, Carrie Johnson, last year noted in her "Benchmark Your eBusiness Strategy and Results" report five key metrics with which e-businesses should guide and track their progress. Two of those – annual e-business budget, and number of staff dedicated to the online division – likely have a big impact on the operations and IT part of a retail business. Are you finding that retailers are devoting a large enough budget and enough dedicated people to developing, maintaining, testing and fine-tuning e-commerce systems to avoid problems?

E-commerce budgets are increasing, though e-business leaders feel they still fight the perception that the Web should be a lower-cost and lower-overhead operation. The real dollars are becoming meaningful and team size has grown, but budgets are still often below where they need to be to invest in the core technology capabilities and build their teams to support a growing multichannel business. And even if they have the money they find it hard to hire the talent, especially in technology and analytics roles. To mitigate these challenges and increase business agility, we see more e-business leaders relying on outside services teams and cloud-based technology solutions to augment their teams and fill in the gaps in capabilities they need to compete.