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Comment: Multichannel retailing: all you need to know about e-tail

Compare modern retail to nineties retail and you have two, very different, scenes. Ten years ago, the majority of shopping was done at high-street retail outlets. The ‘naughties’ has seen internet retail stake its claim as the go-to for shoppers looking for just about any products, at highly competitive prices. By Dominic Monkhouse


Comment: Multichannel retailing: all you need to know about e-tail

This Christmas will likely see over 50 per cent of shoppers go online and a recent US survey predicted that Christmas 2009 will see an 18 per cent increase in online shopping from 2008, when 41 per cent of consumers shopped online. With over half of Americans doing the majority of their Christmas shopping online, the rest of the world is sure to follow suit.
Alongside this increase in site traffic is an increase in pressure on the backend technology supporting the sites. E-tailers need to make sure their sites are absolutely ready for the Christmas onslaught and indeed any growth in traffic numbers generally.
Despite customers usually not being aware of a problem until their goods don’t arrive, online retail problems usually occur at the checkout stage, when issues with the website means the order is never received in the first place.

Missing out on orders is clearly bad for business. To ensure this doesn’t happen, e-tailers need to speak to their web hosting provider to make sure the engine behind a site drives a fast online experience. E-tailers need to make sure they’ve got this right or they could end up with sites crashing as the Christmas rush hits.
The cause behind many web performance problems is a ‘network bottleneck’, which can be due to anything from an overloaded server to an overloaded network. It can be prevented by making sure the hosting provider is able to scale up or down very quickly, depending on the expected site traffic.

For example, a website selling Christmas trees will have dramatically more hits in December than in July – the site will needs to be able to handle this seamlessly. In being able to scale down, the company can also save money by only paying for the space it really needs during the quieter months. This is where the web host comes in. 
Most online stores host a lot of images and need to ensure their site’s back-end technology can handle this. Images are heavy files and can cause stress. Using a content delivery network (CDN) to cache images is a good way of managing the load. If the hosting provider can’t provide this, e-tailers will need to find a provider that can store a large amount of image files as it is a vital part of e-commerce hosting.

Another problem is that many online retailers only have one server and don’t use load-balanced systems. Load-balancing is the process of distributing activity evenly across a network so that no single server is overwhelmed. It is especially important for networks when it’s difficult to predict the number of requests that will be issued to a server. Busy websites typically use two or more web servers so if one starts to get swamped, requests are forwarded to another server with more capacity. Therefore the website stays online and customers aren’t affected.

Another vitally important aspect of e-tail is speed - a site that takes five minutes to load will soon be abandoned. Speed is never more important than at the checkout. If a website hangs at the vital ‘Pay’ moment, the customer will lose patience and confidence in the site and head off elsewhere. To make sure the shopping cart is fast, e-tailers can use the load testing tools to simulate 10 times more users and check their site stands up. This way, they can anticipate problems early and they’ll know whether they’re prepared for the shopper onslaught.

The key to ensuring a site will hold up, whether at the Christmas rush or any other busy period, is to test it and fix it before traffic hits.

Dominic Monkhouse is managing director of PEER 1

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