Capturing peak demand: Handling online shopping surges

Sarah Church, Senior Account Manager at Node4 looks at the online retail landscape over the past few months.

In years gone by, consumers would queue overnight outside retailers’ stores in a bid to snap up bargains in the Boxing Day and January sales. Traditionally, many retailers drop their prices the day after Christmas and the winter holiday shopping season is eagerly anticipated by shoppers looking for big discounts on winter wear, home electronics, toys, Christmas decorations and gifting items for the year ahead as retailers turn over their merchandise in preparation for the new season.

Savvy consumers start planning early for the after-Christmas sales and consumer websites are already providing shoppers with alerts on deals they should keep a watch out for. While Boxing Day sales officially start at midnight 26 December, this year many pundits are predicting that a lot of Boxing Day deals will drop pre-Christmas.

While speculation rages about where the best offers will appear, and when, one thing is for sure. This year, online sales are going to be a big deal.

The rise and rise of the online shopper
2020 has been a year like no other. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has changed forever how we work, socialise and shop. With cities going in and out of lockdown, consumers have had to adapt fast. As a result, online shopping for everything is fast becoming the new normal as consumers, regardless of age, eagerly embrace options that limit their need to engage in in-store interactions. Little wonder then that demand for options like buying online, pick up in-store (BOPIS), subscription services and curbside pickup has skyrocketed.

So much so that online shopping is rapidly becoming established as the first choice for consumers purchasing everything from groceries to home furnishings. Indeed, in September the Office of National Statistics revealed that “The proportion of online spending peaked during lockdown and still remains higher than in February.” Indicating that even when restrictions were initially eased, most people opted to continue undertaking the majority of their shopping online.

In the light of this sustained behavioural trend, some savvy UK retailers have already made preparations for a post-Christmas surge in online shopping. According to a recent study, 15% of retailers have created roles specifically to cater to an increase in digital sales and to boost online capacity.

Preparing for online retail surges
Ensuring that web servers and network capacity are robust enough to cope with website traffic will be essential for enabling optimised browsing and shopping experiences for consumers. To effectively manage the increase in virtual footfall, retailers will need to ramp up their public cloud consumption to ensure that applications can accommodate the extra demand. Having burstable or scalable bandwidth capacity will be key for handling short sharp jumps in demand.

Similarly, utilising services such as database optimisation and supply chain management will be essential to ensure that back-office and e-commerce systems continue to operate efficiently, that stock levels can be constantly aligned to real-time demand, and that order picking and logistics are appropriately prepared to cope with the uptick.

In addition to ensuring that all infrastructure and services are optimised, retailers will also need to ensure that their call centres are ready for the surge in consumer demand. In addition to taking on additional staff, exploring ‘burstable’ extension licensing and SIP channels will help to ensure that customers can get their queries resolved without having to hang on the line waiting for agents.

Initiating or extending the capacity of multi-media options will make it possible for consumers to submit enquiries online which can then be managed via email or chat. All of which will help to reduce phone queue times.

Capturing the opportunity
Research suggests that, for many retailers, the post-Christmas sales represent a bigger opportunity than Black Friday. So retailers will need to take steps to improve their online presence and virtual customer service or risk missing out. That means finding sustainable and effective ways of handling peak demand will be critical, as online traffic is likely to be exceptionally high this year.

In today’s digital world, many flexible and scalable options can make it easy for retailers to handle a temporary increase in demand cost-effectively and efficiently. With no need for expensive long-term commitments – and no need to compromise on the delivery of an exemplary customer experience – capturing the opportunity just takes a little forward planning.

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