Autumn has finally arrived, meaning holiday shopping season is right around the corner. More than 174 million Americans sought out bargains on Black Friday in 2017, kicking off a two-month period during which retail companies sold approximately $691 billion in merchandise, according to research from the National Retail Federation. If recent purchasing trends are any indication, U.S. consumers are likely to eclipse this figure in 2018. Sellers everywhere are no doubt preparing for this exciting yet challenging time. For most, this means readying backend computing infrastructure for the hectic months ahead.
Code freezing is, of course, an essential part of this process. Retailers embarking on code freezes over the coming weeks would be wise to familiarize themselves with related best practices and move forward with technically strong workflows that ensure system stability amidst chaos.
Understanding code freezing
Online sales accounted for almost 10 percent of all the retail transactions recorded in the U.S. during second quarter of 2018, according to analysts for the U.S. Department of Commerce. This number has steadily increased for the last decade and is expected to continue on this course as the post-Amazon shopping era crystallizes. Most retail companies have adjusted to this new reality in some way and now maintain relatively robust digital sales infrastructure. Internal information technology teams must update these systems from time to time. In normal circumstances, such adjustments pose few problems, as IT personnel can reliable resolve any issues that appear post-go-live without risking profit loss. However, during the holiday shopping season, when in-store and web traffic increases considerably, live code changes are less than ideal and can lead to operational hiccups that hurt the customer experience.
This is why a majority of sellers embrace code freezing, which entails locking in core site architecture that, if altered, could cause technical issues. This is not an optional strategy, according to Dan Forno, director of client success for the digital commerce agency Blue Acorn. Modern retail organizations must nail down their backend infrastructure before attempting to serve thousands of frenzied technology-savvy shoppers. Those that don’t risk of suffering increased load times and even crashes.
Configuring for future success
Prior to instituting code freezes, businesses must first assess their existing systems and make any outstanding improvements or tweaks. Here, internal IT teams should focus on a handful of mission-critical components, including:
- Shipping features and settings: E-commerce success hinges on these items, which are normally contained within the checkout module, the most sensitive portion of any retail website. With this in mind, IT teams should give themselves time to carefully make changes to these components and ensure they are functional and do not interfere with the transaction process.
- Website extensions: Retailers with active online operations make use of numerous website extensions – unwieldy plug-and-play components that often originate from third-party developers and therefore leverage unsound code that requires heavy testing and tweaking. Consequently, IT teams should wrap up any extension-related work long before the code freeze nears.
- Currency exchange features: Most modern retailers have a global reach thanks, in part, to online currency exchange components, which allow businesses to accept tender types from across the world. However, just like shipping features, these online assets commune with core website architecture, meaning they should be handled with care.
Retailers that perfect these essential website components can initiate code freezing with confidence, knowing their online portals are technically sound enough to withstand hoards of seasonal shoppers without major intervention.
Modern holiday shoppers want seamless online experiences, which means sellers must keep their websites free of experimental code.
Getting the timing right
While there is no hard and fast rule for when IT teams should institute code freezing, most retailers attempt to put a stop to all major website changes at least a month before Thanksgiving. This may seem a little early, but it is critical the sellers stop all production changes and let their portals normalize prior to the Black Friday rush. That said, some businesses simply cannot stand by without making significant changes and take advantage development grace periods, allowing personnel to tinker with key website architecture between Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, this strategy comes with some risks.
Updates and content production during the freeze
Ideally, retailers should avoid website modifications of any kind during code freezes. This is, of course, easier said than done for today’s sellers, who must be keep up with ever-changing consumer demands. Sometimes, businesses break code freeze protocol to delve into their backend computing architecture and make small changes. For instance, CSS adjustments are relatively safe, as website stylesheets have little impact on the actual machinations online shopping. Code changes meant to bolster load speed can also be executed with little fuss – as can targeted bug fixes. That said, best practice is to refrain from making website changes of any kind as a single backend slip-up could lead to disaster. In addition to making smaller user experience-oriented tweaks during code freezes, retail IT teams can roll out engaging content to attract users, according to Blue Acorn. These low-impact activities can generate additional traffic, all without disrupting core online operations.
“Half of all shoppers expect page load times of two seconds.”
Leveraging code freezing for growth
On the surface, code freezes appear to be preventive in nature – defensive IT measures meant to reduce the likelihood of revenue loss during high-traffic sales periods. This is true. However, some in the retail space use these periods to develop their online engagement strategies via A/B testing, Blue Acorn found. Most retailers see some of the same customers every holiday shopping season, allowing them to experiment with marketing methods and create new connections. In fact, code freezes are the perfect time for sellers to go back to the basics and really re-evaluate their core customer services strategies. This sort operational reflection and experimentation can catalyze forward momentum, even as developers pause on new IT initiatives.
Evaluating the advantages
Some in the e-commerce website development field believe code freezes are becoming relics of the past and reinforce ineffective IT practices, according to CIO Insights. In reality, this is not the case. Even the most advanced retail operations need to ensure website stability during the holiday shopping season, as modern customers lend businesses little leeway when it comes to making purchases online. For instance, half of all shoppers expect page load times of two seconds or less and are likely to leave if required to wait longer for content to populate, analysts for Akamai discovered. Retail businesses must take these customer experience expectations seriously and ensure that their websites run as quickly as possible during the holidays. This, in turn, necessitates a total stoppage of all large-scale development activity via code freeze.
Sellers looking to find success this holiday shopping season should embrace this backend best practice and make any significant website improvements prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. Here at Pixafy, we work with retail organizations of all sizes embarking on such efforts, leveraging award-winning e-commerce development expertise to produce online shopping experiences that engage customers and boost the bottom line. Connect with us today to learn more about our work and we can help transform your businesses ahead of the holiday shopping season.