If you’re anything like me, you can’t stand hearing Christmas music as you shop for your Halloween costume. It seems every year the holiday expands to capture ever more of our attention, and I find myself actively avoiding public places for the months leading into it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas – seeing family, giving gifts to loved ones, feast of seven fishes – I just love it for about a week, not a entire quarter.
But as much as I would love to just ignore the holidays until they’re upon us, retailers can’t afford to be so shortsighted. Many companies go into a code freeze sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Avoiding major changes during this crucial time allows the team to focus on getting the most out of holiday sales without risking website downtime.
The major projects you want to get in before the holidays need to be planned now – as of the publish date of this article, there are only six full sprint cycles (assuming two week sprints) before Black Friday.
There are two important questions that need to be answered at this point: 1. Should we have a code freeze during the busy period? 2. What do we need to optimize prior to the holiday rush?
To Freeze or not to Freeze?
The reasons for a holiday code freeze are numerous, but we won’t go into too much detail here. We do, however, want to point out a few things that might make you think twice before instating such a rule in your organization. Code freezes can lead to incomplete or poorly written code when trying to finish projects by the deadline. It can also lead to poorly planned projects that don’t account for all the use cases as product owners try to get their wish lists completed. Finally, code freezes can prevent teams from working on low risk projects that might have huge upside. These are all reasons to consider whether that code freeze is actually right for your organization.
Regardless of whether you have a freeze or not, there are a few higher risk projects that could make a huge difference for your organization heading into the holidays. These need to be identified now so they can be scoped out and built before the busy period. Even if you don’t have a code freeze, some of these are too risky to try during the make-or-break holiday rush.
Site Speed Optimization
This is, not surprisingly, one of the largest factors in conversion rate. Numerous studies out there show significant drop offs – users bouncing before page load – with each increasing second of load time; upwards of six seconds and the majority of users have already bounced before they’ve ever seen your site! This impacts not only your conversion rate (if your analytics even gets to load in time to count the user), but your PPC and organic performance as well.
Most of these problems, while fixable, require either time or higher risk changes. Moving content to a CDN, for instance, has the ability to take down your entire site if not done carefully. Likewise, caching pages and images can result in users seeing dated content if not done correctly. If your prices change but someone has cached a sale price on a promotional banner, this can cause major headaches for your customer service team. If your site speed optimizations require changes to scripts that run the site, these are obviously also high risk and need to be extensively tested.
None of these are changes that should be rolled out during a busy period, so make sure you plan ahead. Even if you can only do parts now and save other parts for later, any gains in site speed leading into the holidays will be well worth your resources. That being said, if something goes wrong that causes your site to slow down significantly, or exposes a specific problem that is accentuated by higher traffic, go ahead and make some changes to fix this, just do so with extreme caution.
Inventory Tied to Your Site
This one is really important around the holidays for a couple reasons. First, some people are giving gifts off a list – they know exactly which item they need to buy and don’t have any wiggle room, so they need to make sure you have that product in stock. Users are also sensitive to delivery timing – they don’t want to purchase something only to find that the order is going to arrive past the delivery date because it’s backordered. Letting users shop with confidence that the item is in stock and will be delivered on time can be a differentiating factor when they have a number of other places they can get the same thing.
As a bonus, this opens up the ability to use stock-based messaging to entice users to buy now. Messaging like “Only 2 left!” or “Limited QTY Remaining” may get you the sale now and prevent the user from shopping around if they’re worried they will miss out. Likewise, messaging like “Get it by [date]” can alleviate concern over late gifts.
Checkout Flow Back End
If you have any plans to change your checkout back end – offering free shipping, changing shipping providers, adding address verification, international support, etc. – you need to do this well in advance of holiday orders shipping out. These often require major changes to your order processing and you’ll need time to work out the kinks. The last thing you need is to be scrambling to figure out why your customers are not getting the things they need in time or, even worse, just not completing orders.
Another key checkout feature that is important enough to deserve its own section here is gift wrapping. As families become more separated geographically, sending gifts ordered online is becoming a much more common practice.
Offering gift wrapping may seem as simple as hiring some staff to wrap packages, however, it requires you to flag the order as a gift and add a new line item to the order. Both of these require changes to the back end processing system, which you do not want to be altering during the peak period.
Value Proposition Messaging
This one is here not because of technical difficulty, but more because of the scope of work. You might find that your value propositions are not sufficient to draw users in – if everyone else in your space is offering free shipping, it might not matter if you have the “lowest” pre-shipping price or if you have the widest selection. Identify your strategy for winning users from your competition and make sure you have the right projects in place to handle this.
If you feel your value propositions are strong, you might look for third party tools that help streamline these processes. For example, if you offer, or would like to offer, free returns consider a tool like Linc, which adds advanced package tracking, manages order history and helps users easily print return labels right from your site. You want to complete this with time to fix any issues and test messaging of these benefits BEFORE users are shopping for the holidays.
Wish List and Abandonment Programs
A great thing to have on your site around the holidays is a wish list. This means not just the ability to select items and save them somewhere, but also to be able to share that list with others. You also want to build a program around wish list abandonment, similar to your cart abandonment strategy. If a user doesn’t email the list, or nobody visits within a few days of it being created, send a follow up email that encourages the user to share his or her list.
BONUS: Maybe Next Year…
There are some projects you may have in mind that are too late to launch this year.
Reviews, for instance, are only powerful when you have enough volume to give an average rating and show that users actually buy the products. If you rush to get this in now and have no items reviewed around the holidays, it actually might be detrimental – users will think these items are never bought or, even worse, that your site is not popular and might not be trustworthy. Instead of rushing this out now, consider implementing something early next year and using an email program to solicit reviews during the year. Don’t show the reviews until you’ve gathered enough for them to be compelling then turn it on mid-year and measure the impact.
Another category to avoid is installing any tool with learning algorithms. Site search and cross-sell platforms commonly fall into this category. If these get installed too close to the busy period, they won’t have had time to “seed” and will not have learned what they need to be effective. Furthermore, shopping behavior is different around the holidays and could skew the learnings and possibly impact sales the rest of the next year. This is another item to add to your Q1 list of projects.
TL;DR – Maybe a Code Frost is Better than a Code Freeze
Do large or risky projects now (late summer) to allow time for quality planning and development, and extensive QA testing. Smaller projects can roll out during the holidays if they are likely to provide a significant lift.
The key thing at this time of year is to mitigate risk – if you have risky items that you really want to get done before the holidays, they should be tackled now whether they’re in the above list or not.
Smaller changes, even if they’re high on your list, can probably wait until the busy period provided you don’t institute a total code freeze. Consider a “code frost” instead, allowing developers to roll out small changes as needed.
And if you’ve got items that require “seeding,” start lining up your vendors during the busy period so you can have everything in place for the 2017 holiday season – it’s almost already here.