While this represents a secular shift that will extend far into the future, its significance in the current moment can’t be overemphasized. The holiday season typically accounts for more than a third of retail sales. Given the growing list of coronavirus-induced bankruptcies, the 2020 season will prove the salvation or the death knell for a multitude of businesses, depending on strategy and execution.
So what should brands and retailers do?
“Our advice would be to focus on optimizing site performance immediately,” says Bob Buffone, the CTO and co-founder of Yottaa. “Ecommerce sites will undoubtedly be the way consumers shop this year, and sites need to be able to handle heavier traffic spikes than ever before, load faster and smoother, and avoid issues that disrupt the purchase.”
Such capabilities require a robust and stable website. That’s typically assured during the holidays via code freeze—locking down code to prevent further modifications. And that’s still a productive safeguard against website disruption during peak traffic, Buffone says.
“Code freezes before holiday peaks are necessary, as [they help] ensure your site is stable [and issues can be] quickly resolved,” says Buffone, who further notes that “rushed out” A/B tests and campaigns are particularly problematic, given they often break sites or create confounding user experience issues.
“They should be designed, implemented, and tested beforehand so they can just be ‘turned on,’ Buffone says.
But code freeze shouldn’t be viewed as a panacea, says Stefan Nandzik, the vice president of product and brand marketing for Signifyd.
“While I understand the impulse to go to code freeze during the holiday season, the idea feels a little dated,” Nandzik says. “We’re no longer in a world where ecommerce operations have to rely on on-premises servers and monolithic systems that mean one wrong move can cause a chain reaction of chaos and catastrophe. In today’s agile development landscape, there is no reason to lock down innovation for months at a time.”
Nandzik observes that large tech companies have demonstrated that independent microservices allow a “continuous deployment model,” obviating the need for periodic big releases.
“The ecommerce corollaries [are] headless commerce systems,” says Nandzik. “Headless commerce is essentially applying microservices-architecture thinking to retailers’ tech stacks, making it possible to not only enable continuous deployment, but also build resilience into the overall system.”
In the current retail climate, Nandzik continues, “Every day of the year is mission-critical. If a development team can’t continue to innovate and deliver value every day, [their] businesses will be at a severe disadvantage . . . in the war for the ultimate consumer experience.”
Adam Kane, a senior sales engineer for Yotpo, concurs with Buffone that the most-compelling reason for holiday season code freeze is elimination of the risks implicit in deploying code during retail’s busiest months. But there’s an ancillary benefit to the practice, Kane says: it allows developers to pursue experimental projects that may have been sidelined due to pressing deadlines.
“[Code freeze] is a great time to let them loose to develop creative and ‘out of the box’ functionality that could really benefit a brand’s ecommerce store,” says Kane. “Brands can also run multivariant tests to gain valuable insights very quickly due to heavy holiday traffic, and direct different small slices of traffic to distinct offers to learn what is working and what isn’t.”
On the flip side, Kane observes, major development ceases during code freeze. That means backlogged feature requests—many of which may be in high demand—must wait until the freeze thaws before they can be launched.
“However, brands can mitigate this by communicating early and often with their customers to set the proper expectations for the holidays,” Kane says.
Astound Commerce Technical Director Luke Pond also feels that code freeze should be viewed as a valuable respite for developers, allowing them to attend to critical—but often overlooked—maintenance issues such as fixing log file errors, writing documentation, or paying down technical debt.
Moreover, Pond maintains, a code freeze doesn’t prevent necessary interventions. After all, he says, a code freeze is essentially a period of time when the development process has been split into two parallel branches: one for a pending production release that proceeds slowly and with meticulous oversight, and one for longer-term “anything goes” development. The production release is “frozen” only to the degree that it doesn’t receive all the changes contributed to the code base.
“It will always be possible to prioritize a particular bug or feature enhancement for production release and deliver it in a code update—after it has been thoroughly reviewed, of course,” says Pond. “It’s no cause for alarm if this kind of ‘hot fix’ deployment becomes necessary at some point during the code freeze. Just ensure that the update takes place between market-initiated traffic surges.”
Indeed, brands and retailers must look beyond code freeze as they evaluate responses and solutions to the upcoming holidays, says Pond.
“Focus on getting the most out of the external service providers to your site,” he advises. “Study click-through rates and conversions for your product recommendations, examine user engagement with product reviews, and understand the uptake of rewards programs and referral marketing discounts. All of these systems provide the ability to reconfigure the programs and strategies in use, so test and measure in order to optimize the benefit they bring to your business.”
7 Immediate Actions for Brands Playing Catch-Up this Holiday Season
The 2020 holiday season is expected to bring unprecedented sales volume. Is your brand well-prepared for the deluge? If you find yourself playing catch-up, here are seven steps Astound Technical Director Luke Pond recommends taking right now to optimize your ecommerce platforms:
- Ensure third-party API integrations are responsive
- Examine the path through checkout to minimize outgoing service calls
- Review statistics from the web server to confirm that popular landing pages aren’t generating extra application load outside the caching layer
- Evaluate front-end performance scores and implement browser-native image lazy loading
- Check the overhead from marketing pixels and other items added via the tag manager to confirm satisfactory performance
- Review daily batch processing load and sequence heavyweight processes for slower hours
- Ensure there’s a streamlined and predictable process to deliver catalog and content updates to production