5 ecommerce websites to watch on Black Friday

Retailers with a transactional website are about to face their biggest test of the year: Black Friday, which takes place on November 27th. Spending is predicted to reach £1.9 billion – a 17% increase on last year – in the UK, with a third of sales taking place online, according to Visa Europe.

Already we’ve seen one casualty of a surge in online trading, as Argos’ website tripped over when it launched its ’12 days of Black Friday’ promotion. However, the good news for the brand is that it has a few days to learn lessons and put contingency plans in place before ecommerce activity peaks.

For other businesses, though, the litmus test is yet to come – so what should we expect from the digital retail community on the big day?

It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on Amazon, ASOS, Debenhams, Marks & Spencer and Next this Black Friday. A recent study by Aimia crowned these retailers the best five UK ecommerce sites for customer experience.

The survey identified personalisation as pivotal to the online journey, as although these sites are rising to the challenge, more than half of consumers feel they are still being targeted with irrelevant product suggestions.

However, tailoring promotions based on previous buying behaviour is the tip of the ecommerce iceberg – some retailers are still struggling to get their basic offering right, particularly under pressure.

During peak trading events like Black Friday, the number one priority is being present and capable of delivering on customer expectations, and the resources needed to achieve this should not be underestimated. As Schuh’s head of ecommerce, Sean McKee, remarked in a recent Black Friday video interview, “be available for the customer, because the customer is absolutely wanting to buy products from you”.

Too many retailers experienced issues with their website last Black Friday, resulting in slow loading times, long waits and costly periods of downtime. In order to avoid this in 2015, concerned businesses need to ask themselves the following questions:

  • Is your hosting environment flexible enough to accommodate surges in demand?
  • Do you need to increase your server capacity to cope with Black Friday traffic?
  • Does your hosting company know it is Black Friday, and what the impact could be on digital activity?
  • Have you got the infrastructure in place to monitor Black Friday traffic in real-time, and respond to emerging issues?

At the end of the day, come Black Friday, price trumps everything else. So while personalisation might be the long game, on 27th November ecommerce retailers need to focus on availability and efficiency to maximise market share.

The #manonthemoon isn’t just a test for John Lewis’ ad team

When does the festive season begin? For retailers it was months ago, but for much of the public, the Christmas klaxon has been sounded in recent years by the debut of John Lewis’ Christmas advert.

This year is no exception, with the launch of its #manonthemoon commercial, a poignant piece highlighting the loneliness and isolation that this time of year can be filled with for many (John Lewis has partnered with Age UK for the campaign).

I’ll leave any critiques of the advert to the marketing experts; what I want to focus on are the consequences of yet another hugely successful initiative for John Lewis.

Ultimately, however they tell the story, retailers release big budget ads because they want to sell more in the run-up to Christmas. All being well, they should see a fairly swift uplift in online traffic, which will filter through to the store as well.

The challenge for these businesses is to make sure the beautifully crafted brand image showcased in their Yuletide commercials is upheld when customers reach the shelf edge – otherwise their overriding emotion is going to turn from awe to disappointment.

Christmas shopping is a stressful activity at the best of times, let alone when shoppers can’t get the item they’re looking for, they’re forced to queue for a long period of time, or they struggle to get questions answered by overstretched members of staff.

Now, I’m not saying John Lewis is guilty of any of the above, but generally speaking, customer experience in the store is an ongoing challenge for the retail industry. In our recent report: why retailers and customers are becoming disconnected by the store network – and how to fix it,  we discovered that almost half of shoppers have experienced frustrations trying to get queries solved in-store, and looked into the significant impact this has on long-term relationships.

What makes depth of service even more critical at Christmas is the fact that many consumers aren’t buying for themselves this time of year. As a result, they’re far more likely to be asking questions about the products they potentially want to buy.

Christmas isn’t a particularly loyal time of year – events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday encourage people to shop around for the best price – but a good store experience can make a retailer stand out from the crowd, and inspire a newfound advocacy into the New Year.

Equally, a worse-than-expected encounter can dampen the reputation that marketing departments and agencies have spent thousands (in some cases, millions) of pounds creating.

With click-and-collect purchases expected to soar to record levels this festive season, store associates are going to be under enormous pressure to serve time-poor customers in a satisfactory and timely manner.

So as the nation passes its verdict on Christmas ad season, let’s hope the retailers putting out these yuletide offerings have the network infrastructure to follow through on the brand promise their stories portray.