How to maintain a great customer experience during peak season

By Darren Ward

This article tackles the threats to online retail customer experience at peak:

  1. Technical issues
  2. Usability and design issues
  3. Application functionality issues
  4. Third party platform issues
  5. Device-specific issues

I’m constantly astounded how Christmas seems to start earlier every year on the high street.  For example, I saw my first Christmas cards for sale in September this year.

We have a full guide on customer experience for you - Read it here


However, as retailers, you will most likely have been thinking about the Christmas season much longer than that.  To further complicate matters, retailers now have to think about Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which means “holiday season” planning needs to start even earlier.

For both online and offline retailers, preparation has most likely started early in the year for the upcoming holiday season.

In the online world, marketers are most likely thinking about their holiday season inventory, campaigns, search optimisation, promotions and, of course, making sure they have the hottest products that will be given as gifts.

On the technical side of the house, IT folks have been planning the capacity needed for the massive influx of traffic they will most likely receive.  With eCommerce sales outstripping bricks and mortar and continuing to grow, surely online retailers can just sit back and watch the sales roll in?

Sadly not.

Online retailers are facing many of their own challenges. Amazon is taking a bigger and bigger share of online shares and almost becoming the default shopping interface for many customers.

Also, Google Shopping is also making inroads and means you are constantly being directly compared to your competition. And it is also likely that the expectations from your company’s leadership and investors is that online sales will continue to grow at a rapid rate.

These challenges mean that it is more important than ever to ensure that the customers who reach your site have the best experience you can possibly provide.  You want them to have a frictionless route to purchase and avoid putting obstacles in their way that prevents them from purchasing.

However, online retailers typically spend less time thinking about this than they do about how they are going to increase the number of new visitors they attract in the first place.

So, what are the obstacles and online retail customer experience issues that might confront your customers on your website?  In order to understand them better, I like to split them into 5 key categories:

1. Technical Issues

The last thing a customer wants to see when they have their credit card out of their pocket and are ready to purchase is a horrible, hairy technical error. 

In the holiday season, you can typically see traffic spikes of 100% to 200% which can make these much more likely.  However, errors are not limited to issues with capacity.  There are a multitude of reasons why this could happen.  The bad news is that without the right level of visibility, these errors are difficult to discover and potentially hard to fix. 

2. Usability and Design Issues

Modern consumers have a high level of expectation of ease of use.  They have been conditioned by frictionless experiences in smartphone apps. Any frustration with usability can lead customers to quickly abandon your site.  Hence, the design and navigation in your online shop is extremely important. 

A wide range of usability issues can impact customers – from positioning of buttons through to how specific messages are worded and displayed.  It is key for retailers to be able to walk in their customers’ shoes and visualise the experiences they are having.

3. Application Functionality Issues

As well as hard technical errors, users can also be impacted by unintended functionality and process flaws within your site.  For example, is the shopping cart emptying unexpectedly if a customer has a payment issue?  Or, are products showing as un-deliverable in a geography - even though it was possible to add it to the cart? 

Again, the very specific user actions that lead to these problems can be very hard to pick up in normal application testing – often the only way to discover them is from analysing and observing real customer behaviour.

4. Third Party Platform Issues

eCommerce sites are becoming more and more dependent on third party technologies to power functionality on their websites.  In particular, payment is an area that is increasingly outsourced and the content is often driven direct from payment partners e.g. PayPal, Ogone, Klarna and the like.

Don’t forget, however, that the customers that reach payment are the most qualified sales opportunities on the site.  Any issues with the payment platform at this point can seriously harm sales.

5. Device-Specific Issues

On Black Friday last year, a record breaking $1bn of sales were generated on mobile. However, one of the biggest challenges of delivering today’s retail website in a “mobile first” world is ensuring support for the multitude of browser and device combinations.  The problem is that it is nigh impossible to test for every combination.

This means CX issues caused by nuances in the way a particular device works often only reveal themselves when the site is “in the wild” being used by real customers.

Issues can be of a technical nature but struggles are often caused by the site design not being optimised for mobile.  For example, do crucial calls to action disappear below the fold?  Do button presses not activate correctly on touch screens?  This is exacerbated by regular updates made to operating systems. 

One customer I worked with saw a sudden drop in conversion when Apple released a major iOS release – customers using the new OS were no longer transitioned correctly to their 3rd party payment provider.  Being able to quickly identify and resolve critical issues like this is key.

Customer Experience Analytics (CXA) is one way to discover and visualise the struggles experienced by customers.  This ensures retailers are able to nip these CX problems in the bud and maximise the revenue from the customers they have worked so hard to attract to the site.

There are a number of essentials that retailers should look for when selecting a CX Analytics solution:

  • Advanced Analytics.  The solution should be able to direct you to potential customer struggles rather than having to replay hundreds of user journeys, which is not best use of an analyst’s time.  Ideally, the solution should have some form of automated detection of common user struggles and reasons for poor conversion.
  • Accurate, high-fidelity session replay. Although you won’t want to spend all day viewing session replays – especially during the busy holiday season - it is an essential end-point when you are diagnosing root cause of an issue.  They provide an invaluable way to see your site through your customers’ eyes.
  • Impact Analysis.  The above capabilities will produce a list of optimizations and improvement opportunities.  However, how do you prioritize them?  That is why it is essential to be able to quantify them in terms of number of customers affected and the potential revenue opportunity they present.  Your CXA solution should provide this capability out of the box. 
  • Technical Detail.  If the issue is of a technical nature, your development team need maximum detail to troubleshoot and fix it.  Your CXA solution can become a fantastic bridge between the business and technical teams by providing not only a common view of what happened to the customer, but also the technical detail behind the issue.

Having this deep insight into online retail customer experience is invaluable all year round, but in the holiday season its impact becomes amplified.

The new influx of visitors to your site provides a gold mine of potential revenue.  However, online retail customer experience issues can lead to revenue being unnecessarily left on the table. Paying attention to this now will not only ensure the holiday season remains “the most wonderful time of the year” but will also be the a gift that keeps giving all year round.


By Darren Ward, Head of Presales, EMEA at UserReplay

Go to UserReplay's website and download the eBook Optimizing the Customer Journey During the Shopping Season


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