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Blue Nile Taps Load Testing and Production Lockdowns to Prep for an Unpredictable Holiday Season

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Every retailer is bracing for the incoming surge of ecommerce holiday traffic, but perhaps no category faces as much pressure as luxury, where shoppers expect an experience that matches the price tag. Online jewelry retailer Blue Nile is making sure its website is ready and stable, to make sure each shopper’s first impression is a good one.

“Obviously we’re making sure we have the inventory and our vendors are able to ship things properly, but then on the technology side of things there’s a whole other bunch of tasks,” said Robin Schenck, Quality Assurance Manager at Blue Nile in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “We’re doing lots of load testing for all the different parts of our production system, and we’re working with our third-party vendors that support our chat system to make sure it’s up and running and able to support an increased number of customers on the website.”

Some of the steps Blue Nile has been taking to prepare its operations for the holiday season include:

  • Load testing: The combination of the pandemic and the holiday season will likely cause web traffic volume to ebb and flow in amounts far greater than usual, and retailers need to make sure their sites are ready for the number of simultaneous users on their sites to multiply without warning;
  • Production lockdown: No website is static, but the holiday season is not the time to experiment with new features, so retailers need to keep changes to essential updates performed in as safe a manner as possible; and
  • Maintaining relationships: A stable website is only half the battle — long-lasting relationships, which Blue Nile achieves through a chat program and smart pricing, build off a great browsing experience and carry on far longer than the few months of the holiday season.

Test Websites’ Breaking Points Before Shoppers Find Then on Their Own

No retailer expects their site traffic to be constantly steady, but it takes extra care to prepare for the sudden spikes that can appear during the holidays. For example, carrying a product that gets highlighted on a morning show can cause a sudden rush out of nowhere, and even a particularly successful marketing campaign may generate more traffic more quickly than anticipated. The key to preparing for the unexpected, particularly in a season where ecommerce is bigger than ever, is load testing.

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“For load testing, you simulate how your site is going to handle twice the load that it normally does, or what you can do if it’s five or six times the normal amount of traffic,” said Schenck. “You want to find a balance between, ‘Hey, this is probably what our traffic is going to look like’ and ‘This is the worst case scenario and our system isn’t built to handle it.’”

Finding the breaking point for a retailer’s website is a goal in and of itself, according to Schenk. This is often something that can’t be fixed on a short-term basis in time for the holidays, but it provides an important benchmark for the company when it comes time to upgrade and improve the overall system during less hectic periods.

Implement a Website Production Lockdown, Even if It’s Not Perfect

It’s a simple fact that retail websites are ever-changing: they require regular maintenance, marketing promotions call for new layouts and products often come and go. However, while a complete production lockdown isn’t feasible, retailers should strive to keep website updates small and essential — or else risk their sites going down during what could be the most potentially profitable minutes of the year.

“No company is going to have a true lockdown where nobody touches production,” said Schenck. “But we know we have a complicated production system. We need to make sure the changes being pushed out to it are done in a very safe, thoroughly checked manner, so that we can minimize the risk of those changes accidentally affecting our customers or the overall production system. You don’t want to push out a change that decreases the performance of your site or even causes it to crash.

One way to balance the need for updates versus stability is to create a change review board. Leaders can examine and determine which changes are worth making and keep an eye out for high-risk proposals. A well-run board can ensure updates that are less likely to negatively impact customers make it through, while more substantial or dangerous suggestions are held off until after the lockdown period.

However, retailers can’t assume their site will work smoothly even if they aren’t making changes. Schenck advocates what he calls a “24/7 proactive approach to web performance,” utilizing third-party vendors like Catchpoint to monitor for potential issues and respond to them no matter when they occur.

Once the Backend is Secure, Make Sure the Customer Experience Goes Above and Beyond

While behind-the-scenes work is vital to a strong ecommerce experience, it all has to come together in a great front end presentation. One way Blue Nile ensures this is through a chat system that combines a chatbot with live agents to guide customers through the shopping process (a process that can be stressful when picking out something as expensive as a diamond). The system has been in place for some time, but the retailer expects a steady uptick during the holiday season, and its team has been working with vendors to ensure it’s ready for the traffic.

Blue Nile also has been following in the footsteps of other retailers by offering its deals earlier in the season, both to alleviate shipping concerns and generate long-term goodwill. As with all challenges — from preparing back end systems to maintaining proper execution — the key is to think long-term and not focus solely on the holiday season.

“Our point of view here is that we want to be able to offer the best value for all customers, no matter what time of the year, so they don’t have to wait until Black Friday or a week before Christmas — they can get a great deal on a website now,” said Schenck. “We rarely put our diamonds on sale, but we just started our big diamond sale [in mid-October] and that’s been getting a lot of great success. Customers definitely love getting a good deal.”

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