Oct 4, 2023
Ethan is the director of engineering at Order Protection.
As eCommerce businesses prepare for the holiday shopping season, it’s not all clever marketing campaigns or promoting mega discounts and deals. On the technical side of things, a critical part of the planning process is ensuring your website can withstand the increased traffic.
Imagine you’re a consumer shopping for gifts during Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales. If you end up on a brand’s site that keeps crashing or won’t load, how long would you realistically stay on that site and keep trying to make a purchase? Probably not long.
A 2022 survey by Digital.com found that 52% of online shoppers will leave a website if they have to wait more than six seconds for a page to load. And while site speed is the biggest source of frustration for online consumers, other technical concerns could keep them from shopping on your site as well, including security concerns, unclear or unintuitive site navigation, and sites that aren’t optimized for mobile devices.
All that to say, you could have the best deals, the most creative marketing, and exceptional customer support, but if your website doesn’t provide a good user experience, BFCM shoppers will simply take their business elsewhere.
In order to avoid a technical disaster this holiday season, your brand should be taking steps now to ensure a successful and seamless experience for your customers. In this article, we’ll walk through the process of getting your site ready for the holiday rush, from understanding the importance of a code freeze to implementing strategies for optimal performance. So let's dive in and make sure your eCommerce business is fully equipped for the upcoming holiday season.
Part 1: The significance of a code freeze
Why is a code freeze important for eCommerce?
If your eCommerce site goes down for even just a few hours during the holiday shopping season, you could be missing out on a significant amount of sales. How significant, you ask? Almost a third of all retail sales happen between Black Friday and Christmas Day. All retail sales, not just holiday sales. And according to Adobe Analytics, the 2022 holiday season (from November 1 to December 31) brought in $211.7 billion in sales. Keeping those statistics in mind, we’d be surprised if the thought of your eCommerce site going down during the holidays didn’t make you sweat a little.
Site outages can happen with or without a code freeze, sure. But most eCommerce businesses opt in to code freezes because it’s better to not chance lengthy downtimes or expensive errors because you decided to make major changes to your site or to the code during the holidays. And for merchants with both online stores and brick-and-mortar locations, it’s possible to lose in-store sales if your website isn’t in peak condition. Why? A 2022 survey of over 12,000 US consumers found that a whopping 99% of shoppers research purchases online before going to a store, and 92% will actually research products online while shopping in a brick-and-mortar store.
Here’s the TL;DR of implementing a code freeze:
Stability and reliability: Implementing a code freeze allows you to stabilize your website and reduce the likelihood of technical issues during the high-demand holiday period. This ensures a smooth and uninterrupted shopping experience for your customers.
Risk mitigation: Making significant changes to your website's code during the holiday season can lead to unforeseen errors and downtime. By freezing the code, you minimize the risk of introducing new bugs or disruptions that could negatively impact your business.
Focus on performance optimization: With a code freeze in place, you can shift your focus from making changes to optimizing your eCommerce site's performance. This includes improving page load speed, enhancing mobile responsiveness, and optimizing checkout processes.
Part 2: Preparing your website for the code freeze
1. Update high traffic pages
During the holiday season, certain pages on your eCommerce site, such as product display pages (PDPs), shipping information, and payment options, experience a surge in traffic. Before the code freeze, be sure to prioritize updating and optimizing these high-traffic pages to ensure a seamless shopping experience. Keep the following in mind when making updates to these pages:
Clear and visible information: Make sure essential information, such as shipping details, return policies, and contact information, is easily accessible and prominently displayed on relevant pages. This will not only improve the customer experience, but can reduce the number of inquiries your customer support team will receive on these types of questions.
Streamlined checkout process: Optimize your checkout process to minimize friction and reduce cart abandonment rates. Simplify form fields, offer guest and one-click checkout options, and provide multiple payment methods to cater to diverse customer preferences.
2. Test website speed and performance
Website speed plays a vital role in providing a positive user experience and influencing conversion rates. In fact, 39% of consumers surveyed in the Digital.com report we mentioned earlier think pages on eCommerce sites should take 2-3 seconds to load at most.
When prepping for your code freeze, conduct comprehensive speed tests to identify pages and areas of your site that could use improvement. Consider the following steps:
Optimize image sizes: Compress and resize images to ensure they load quickly without compromising quality. Use image optimization tools or plugins to automate this process.
Minimize HTTP requests: Reduce the number of elements (images, scripts, stylesheets) that require separate HTTP requests to load. Combine and minify files to reduce the overall load time.
Utilize caching: Implement browser caching to store static resources locally, allowing faster subsequent page loads for returning visitors.
Look into a Content Delivery Network (CDN): Consider using a CDN to distribute your website's content across multiple servers globally. This helps reduce server response time and improves page load speed for users across different geographical locations.
3. Mobile optimization
It’s no longer accurate to say the future is mobile, because that time is now. Nearly two-thirds (65.7%) of all global eCommerce sales take place on mobile, and in the 2022 holiday season, 45% of revenue came from mobile devices.
It’s more important than ever to ensure your brand provides an optimal mobile experience, especially during the busy holiday season. In your code freeze prep, consider the following to optimize your site for mobile shopping:
Responsive design: Making sure your website is mobile-responsive, or can adapt seamlessly to different screen sizes and orientations, is the most basic step in optimizing for mobile. Test your site on various devices to ensure consistent performance and usability.
Mobile-friendly checkout: Simplify the checkout process for mobile users. Implement mobile payment options, such as digital wallets and one-click checkout solutions, to streamline the purchasing experience on mobile devices. Eliminating extra steps like creating an account or remembering passwords for existing accounts is a good eCommerce rule of thumb in general, but especially important for the mobile experience. Research shows that account creation and complicated checkout processes are two of the top five reasons for cart abandonment.
Page speed optimization: Optimize your mobile site's performance by implementing the same speed optimization techniques mentioned earlier. Mobile users, in particular, are sensitive to slow-loading pages and may abandon their purchase if faced with delays.
4. Prepare for increased customer support
The holiday season often brings an influx of customer inquiries and support requests. We covered this topic at length in a previous article, but there are a few strategies you can implement to make sure your brand is prepared to handle increased customer support volume.
Live chat and chatbots: Offer real-time support through live chat or chatbot systems. These tools can provide immediate assistance, answer commonly-asked questions, and alleviate the workload of your support team.
FAQs and self-service resources: Enhance your website's FAQs section and self-service resources to address common customer queries. Providing comprehensive and easily accessible information can help customers find answers independently, reducing the need for direct support.
Offer a shipping protection option at checkout: One of the most common reasons consumers contact customer support is due to shipping and delivery errors. A study by customer service platform Gorgias found that “Where is my order?” (WISMO) tickets make up about 40% of eCommerce customer support queries. Providers like Order Protection will not only cover customers in the event that their packages are lost, stolen, or damaged, but they will also handle all claims related to shipping issues, freeing up your customer support teams to focus on other issues.
Why consider this ahead of a code freeze? Most shipping protection options involve adding a widget to your checkout or cart experience, so you’ll want to implement before cutting off making any changes to your site’s code.
Chat with us today to see about adding shipping protection to your site ahead of the holiday rush!
5. Customize error pages
Error pages can be frustrating for users, but they also present an opportunity to engage and retain customers. Customize your error pages with a friendly and informative message, along with suggestions for alternative actions. Consider adding a touch of holiday-themed humor to lighten the mood and redirect users to relevant pages or offers.
Part 3: Implementing a successful code freeze strategy
1. Plan ahead and communicate
A successful code freeze requires proper planning and clear communication with all stakeholders involved. This step is crucial, and should be done well in advance of the code freeze so that other teams can plan ahead and make sure that if they have any major code-change needs, they can be accomplished in time.
Define code freeze period: Determine the specific dates for your code freeze period, ensuring it aligns with the busiest shopping days of the holiday season, such as the “Cyber Five” weekend—Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday.
Notify internal teams: Inform your development, marketing, and customer support teams about the code freeze dates in advance. Ensure everyone understands the importance of stability during this period and the need to refrain from making major changes to the website's codebase.
Communicate with vendors and third-party integrations: If you rely on external vendors or third-party integrations, inform them about your code freeze period to ensure they also refrain from making updates or changes that could impact your website's performance.
2. Test and verify before the freeze
Before implementing the code freeze, thoroughly test your website's functionalities and verify that everything is working as intended. Common pre-code freeze testing includes:
Integration testing: Test all integrations and third-party plugins to ensure they are functioning correctly and not causing any conflicts or errors.
Browser and device compatibility: Test your website across different browsers and devices to ensure consistent performance and usability.
Payment gateway testing: Conduct test transactions using various payment methods to verify that the payment gateway is functioning properly.
3. Monitor performance during the code freeze
Although major code changes are restricted during the code freeze period, it doesn’t mean your engineering teams can take off with a wave and a “See you next year!” Even with a code freeze in place, it’s essential to monitor your website's performance and address any critical issues that arise to ensure you’re never down for long during the holiday rush. Consider the following:
Real-time monitoring: Utilize website monitoring tools to track website performance, uptime, and user experience. Set up alerts to notify you of any potential issues or anomalies.
Customer feedback analysis: Monitor customer feedback channels—uch as reviews, social media, and customer support interactions—to identify any recurring issues or areas for improvement.
Address critical issues: If critical issues impacting the user experience arise during the code freeze, evaluate the severity and address them promptly. This may require temporarily lifting the code freeze to implement necessary fixes.
4. Make the most of the code freeze
Since your teams won’t be working on any major code changes or new additions to your site during the code freeze, you can use this time to focus on things you otherwise might not have the bandwidth (or freedom) to do, like enhancing the stability, performance, and security of your eCommerce site. In this section, we'll explore key areas your teams should focus on during the code freeze to ensure a smooth and profitable holiday season.
Refresh your documentation
Before diving into any technical tasks, it's imperative to revisit your system's documentation. Ensure that it is up-to-date, comprehensive, and easily accessible to all team members. This will serve as a reference point throughout the code freeze and beyond. Documentation should cover:
Architecture: Detailed descriptions of your eCommerce platform's architecture, including databases, APIs, and key components.
Processes: Clear instructions for various development, deployment, and maintenance processes, ensuring consistency and reducing the risk of errors.
API documentation: Keep your API documentation current, making it easier for developers to understand and integrate with your site.
Security protocols: Document security best practices, such as encryption, authentication, and access control, to protect against potential threats.
Write comprehensive tests
One of the primary objectives during the code freeze is to bolster the stability of your eCommerce site. Comprehensive testing is key to achieving this goal. Focus on the following testing aspects:
Regression testing: Create and execute regression tests to identify any unintended side effects of code changes. Ensure that previously fixed issues have not resurfaced.
Performance testing: Assess your site's performance under peak loads. Identify and resolve bottlenecks, optimizing response times and ensuring seamless user experiences during the holiday rush.
Security testing: Conduct security testing, including vulnerability scans and penetration testing, to safeguard customer data and transactions.
Load testing: Simulate heavy traffic scenarios to assess the site's scalability and identify areas that may require optimization.
Clean up old integrations
Over time, your eCommerce site may have accumulated various integrations with third-party services and applications. During the code freeze, it's an excellent opportunity to review and clean up these integrations:
Audit integrations: Identify all third-party integrations and their purpose. Check if any of them are obsolete or no longer serving a vital role.
Remove unnecessary access: Some integrations may have access to sensitive customer data or functionalities that are no longer required. Review permissions and revoke unnecessary access.
Update to latest versions: Ensure that all third-party integrations are running on the latest versions to benefit from security patches and improved features.
By decluttering and optimizing your integrations, you reduce the risk of data breaches and improve the overall performance of your eCommerce site.
Backup and disaster recovery
During the code freeze, don't forget to revisit your backup and disaster recovery processes. Ensure that you have robust mechanisms in place to recover quickly from any unforeseen issues, such as data corruption or server failures. Verify that backups are being taken regularly and can be restored efficiently.
Part 4: Post-code freeze analysis and optimization
1. Gather and analyze data
Once the holiday season is over, analyze the data collected during the code freeze period to gain insights that will help you optimize future performance and plan for next year’s code freeze. This might include:
Conversion rate analysis: Analyze conversion rates during the code freeze period compared to previous periods. Identify any significant changes or trends and evaluate the effectiveness of your strategies.
User experience analysis: Review user behavior metrics—such as bounce rates, session durations, and page views—to assess the overall user experience during the holiday shopping season.
Identify areas for improvement: Use the data analysis to identify areas where further optimization is needed. This could involve refining checkout processes, improving page load speed, or enhancing mobile responsiveness.
2. Continuous optimization
Optimizing your eCommerce site is an ongoing process. The holiday season may be the biggest sales event of the year, but it’s important to continue to refine and improve your website's performance to provide an exceptional shopping experience all year long. A good optimization strategy includes:
Regular performance audits: Conduct regular performance audits to identify any bottlenecks or areas for improvement. This includes monitoring page speed, optimizing images, and fine-tuning server configurations.
User testing and feedback: Utilize user testing and feedback mechanisms to gather insights on user experience and identify pain points or areas where customers may encounter difficulties.
Staying updated with industry trends: Keep up with the latest eCommerce trends and technologies to ensure your website remains competitive and aligned with evolving customer expectations.
Preparing your eCommerce site for the holiday shopping season requires careful planning, strategic execution, and a well-implemented code freeze. By following the steps outlined here, you can optimize your website's performance, provide exceptional customer support, and maximize your success during this critical period.
If your brand is interested in offering shipping protection to get through the holiday rush, reach out today! We know the importance of getting these services set up ahead of the code freeze, and would love to support your business and customers to ensure a joyous holiday season for all.