A Look Back: Lessons Learned from 2015’s Black Friday & Cyber Monday Sale Season

“In this bright future, you can’t forget your past.”

– Bob Marley; Singer/Songwriter, Possible Deputy Killer and Avid Dancer

Truly personifying eCommerce Accelerated means constantly learning, growing, and moving our clients ahead. One way we do this at Gauge is by gathering insight from across the eCommerce industry, and then passing that knowledge on to benefit our ever-growing client base. By partnering with a wide variety of retailers of many different sizes, we get a front-row view of what works and what doesn’t. In this post, we’re sharing a collection of lessons learned from the 2015 Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales period.

Holiday sales account for a massive percentage of our clients’ business each year. This is an opportunity for our clients to not only achieve sales goals, but to also to get a poignant reminder of why they invested in their eCommerce divisions—and in our partnership.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

– Benjamin Franklin; Entrepreneur, Scientist, Founding Father and Beer-Lover

In early September 2015 we sent all of our clients a message, gently nudging them to think about the biggest sales weekend of the year. This communication contained helpful marketing tips (like planning duration and types of promotions) as well as important practices to follow (like actions that could cause site outages or lag time).

But in the bustling world of eCommerce, such communications can easily get lost. Day-to-day demands can sometimes trump discussions about the future. Our clients rely on our ability to take their companies to the next level by helping them remain competitive and keep current with leading eCommerce trends. Each year, we’re on hand to offer advice and help our clients balance immediate, day-to-day tasks and long-term strategic thinking.

Lessons learned:

  • Have a game plan. Decide what promotions you want to run well in advance and align your resources accordingly.
    • One client of ours began planning their Black Friday sales two months early. They even drafted and scheduled their  email and social media notifications well in advance. They were able to sit back and enjoy a very successful sales weekend with little stress!
  • See your ideas through to implementation.
    • One of our clients who took our pre-planning advice to heart saw a significant increase over last year’s sales. They exceeded their sales goals for the week by more than 20%!

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Poet, Novelist and Undauntable Aviator

It can be hard to step back and create broad-scale strategies. Often our clients come to us with a wish that isn’t firmly attached to a goal. So what turns a wish into a goal? A solid plan that bridges where you are and where you want to be.

Some of our clients use detailed sales forecasting, while others may just have a “wishful thinking” approach to projecting sales. Many smaller retailers create sales and marketing plans with little consideration or few ties to their overarching goals. Regardless of where our clients fall on this sales projection spectrum, we can collaborate with them on strong, holistic marketing strategies to turn their wishes into goals.

Each year, you will see a lot of “rubber stamped” discounts on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. These are basically the status quo for the industry, like offering 30% off your entire stock for one day only. Some of our clients took a more proactive, creative approach to their holiday sales. Promotions that broke the mold caught the attention of shoppers, and those sales were a great success.

One of our clients got the jump on competitors with their clever use of lead-up sales. Using email lists, they promoted unique items for the four days leading into Thanksgiving. This created instant demand for those items, driving consumers to their site and exposing them to on-site advertising for their larger sales over the weekend. Essentially, they extended the overall value of their holiday sale.

Another client gave away free items with purchase, and also promoted a “purchase to be entered”-style giveaway. Both strategies paid off with a robust increase over their 2014 Black Friday sales.

Lessons learned:

  • Gather a sales forecast or goals for the entire year as early as possible.
    • Build a forecast that will predict and plan for success. Proactive planning for sales supports growth.
  • Develop a sales calendar for the year based on your unique customer base, as well as known peaks (such as Black Friday/Cyber Monday).
    • Our clients who make creative use of smaller holidays see more consistent sales throughout the year, instead of a relatively flat year with a few major spikes. And really, who doesn’t love a good Flag Day sale?
    • Our clients who planned sales calendars for the year saw an average of 25% increase in sales over 2014.
  • Once sales are scheduled, make sure you have the tools you need to implement the sales plan. Ask yourself these questions:
    • “Now that we know what to do, are we sure we know how to do them?
      • Magento and Shopify both have tricky wording for including or excluding items from pricing rules. One retailer accidentally offered an 80% discount until the error was noticed.
    • “Have we proofread our copy?”
      • Sending a sales notification email with the wrong date can lead to a customer service nightmare. You can’t afford to skip copy-editing!
    • “Does our fulfillment department have everything they need for special holiday packaging?”
  • A marketing and sales plan should be one of several factors feeding your overall business goals.
    • Tie your goals to real and measurable metrics, and use those metrics!
      • It can be easy to get caught up in adding new features and improvements to your website. But if you don’t tie those improvements back into your financials, you can’t tell what works and what doesn’t. We’ve seen this happen firsthand all across the industry.
    • A lack of marketing efforts will translate into fewer dollars earned; invest in your growth!
      • We always tell our clients, and many other experts agree, that simply building a great website and having a great product is not enough to make a sale. You have to draw customers to you actively.
        • Our clients who engage customers via social media see that it not only increases sales; it also extends the lifetime value of a customer by consistently and actively getting products in front of them.

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

– Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower; 34th President of the USA, 5-Star Army General and Civil Rights Hero

Even the best-laid plans can go awry. To avoid major problems, it is important to relay best practices—and forbidden practices—to your entire team. It’s also essential to be mindful of known pressure points and potential weaknesses in the systems you use.

eCommerce is HARD. Some of the largest brands in the word, with practically unlimited budgets for their eCommerce platforms, go down from time to time. Some go down at the worst possible time: the Black Friday-Cyber Monday buying period. This year, the following “big guys” had major issues over that weekend:

  • PayPal (experienced massive payment issues on both Black Friday and Saturday)
  • Target
  • Victoria’s Secret
  • Neiman Marcus (site went down for 3+ hours on both Friday & Saturday; despite investing $100 million since 2013 on a custom platform for their eCommerce operations)
  • Macy’s
  • Foot Locker
  • Dell
  • Kohl’s
  • Best Buy Canada
  • Sony’s Playstation Network
  • hhgregg
  • Walmart

So while you can prepare as much as possible, be aware: even when you are one of the largest retailers in the world, issues can and do come up. eCommerce is like racing, and when do things break in racing? When you’re on the home stretch, engine at redline, testing every component of your infrastructure to the max. That’s exactly what Black Friday and Cyber Monday are to online retailers.

The key is to overprovision website infrastructure for your estimated traffic and transactions, and to think about every component of your infrastructure. Your eCommerce site is not just a website; it’s an extremely complex network of interconnected services. Spend ample time thinking about scenarios that could negatively impact your business and create a plan to address those challenges. It will be one of the best time investments you’ll make all year.

Lessons learned:

  • Whenever possible, plan and test changes to your website in a staging environment.
  • Load test your entire infrastructure with at least twice the traffic/number of orders you experienced last year to identify any weak points.
  • Review the plan with your team and assign responsibilities with clear instruction.
    • Send helpful information well in advance, and then review it with your entire team just before the event so it is fresh in everyone’s minds.
    • Pay close attention to nonstandard practices during “crunch times” (such as protocols around re-indexing or not clearing the cache).
  • Understand your team’s plans for the holiday season and prepare accordingly.
    • Will anyone be out of office for extended periods of time?
    • How much traffic/sales are you anticipating?
      • Will your server handle the load?
      • Will your fulfillment department handle the load?
    • What happens if the website goes down? Who do you contact for help?
  • Build and maintain a list of routine events (like cache clearing, product feeds, accounting integrations, etc.) to avoid conflicts with heavy traffic and sales.
  • Have a “triage” plan in place.
    • Designate a backup payment processor.
    • Be ready to switch to flat table shipping rates in case live shipping rate API goes down.
    • If you use a third party sales tax processor like Avalara, prepare a backup table-based sales tax rate document.
    • Have a team of cross-functioning positions check each other’s work.
      • An extra set of eyes can often catch errors the author wouldn’t notice, such as a pricing rule being marked as 50% off instead of 30%.
    • Understand how to contact your partners for emergency assistance during the holidays.

“No man is an island.”

– John Donne, Creator of Often Quoted Lines of Poetry, Otherwise a Relatively Unknown Figure

Please share your lessons learned with us here in the comments section!

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