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'Tis the season of mobile opportunity

By Retail Technology | Friday February 7 2014

Web performance expert Tim Bisley reflects on the continued growth of mobile shopping over last Christmas and highlights the lessons retailers should learn

Christmas is historically the period when retailers make a significant percentage of their annual revenue or look to make up for disappointing sales earlier in the year or indeed both. 

But as Tim Bisley, vice president of web and mobile cloud-based performance testing company Soasta in Europe, Middle East and Africa, observed Christmas 2013 saw mixed fortunes for retailers, with some doing exceptionally well while others faltered. Yet for Bisley, it was notable for one thing: "The shift from online to mobile, or e-commerce to m-commerce.

"Little surprise then that analysts dubbed the trading period as the 'mobile Christmas,'" he added. John Lewis’ clearance sale began online on Christmas Eve and the retailer reported that 56% of traffic to the site that day was via mobile devices, rising to 76% on Christmas day. 

"The resounding message appears to be that retailers must ensure they are geared up to cope with a new generation of tech-savvy shoppers armed only with smartphones and tablets," he said. Yet Bisley also challenged: "Is it easier said than done or will this prove a test too far?"

A clouded view of testing

He continued: "It would be fair to say that the current view that prevails about testing is somewhat clouded by the belief that testing is complex, time-intensive and a somewhat exclusive affair. Testing is generally regarded as the preserve of large companies with deep pockets and access to data centres with row upon row of servers poised to perform load and stress tests on the IT infrastructure." 

Bisley admitted that this was "certainly the case in the 1990s when client server was all the rage," and testing took weeks and months to set up, run and report. 

"Companies had the luxury of having time on their side, as the web was still in its infancy, e-commerce was still a novelty and mobile phones were, well, just phones," he explained. 

"Fast forward twenty or so years and it is consumers calling the shots and setting the agenda as social media, smartphones and tablets dominate the way individuals engage and interact with retailers. Time is no longer a luxury and testing has to evolve to embrace an omnichannel environment based around smartphones, tablets and apps."

Real-time dynamic analysis

For retailers that maintain legacy testing technology, the challenge is trying to figure out how to adapt an inflexible, expensive and linear testing tool designed in the 1990s to solve very different problems to the demands of a 21st century environment. 

"Those demands dictate that testing can no longer be a static exercise conducted in the confines of a lab but an ongoing, real-time event that is anchored within the consumer environment," Bisley said. 

But he added that the advent of cloud computing has fundamentally changed the testing landscape. "Retailers, irrespective of their size, can deploy scalable, cost-effective and dynamic testing platforms that deliver meaningful data and insights into not only the performance of their website or app, but how that performance affects consumer behaviour and the way their customers interact with them online," he said. "In an age of the smartphone and tablet, continuous testing becomes the norm rather than the exception."

Eat, sleep, test, repeat

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the continuous testing Bisley suggests involves an endless cycle of eating, sleeping, testing and repeating. Rather, he said continuous testing can be done relatively easily and provides both a reassurance as well as foresight into performance issues as well as capacity issues. 

"For example, a major global retail grocery brand recently embarked on a programme to test its website ahead of the Black Friday event using a cloud-based platform," he continued. 

"The revelation was not how quickly it took to conduct the test, nor the insight regarding potential bottlenecks, but the fact that they were able to improve performance capacity by a factor of five while, at the same time, removing 20% of their server infrastructure. This was only made possible by the data and insight that they gleaned through a programme of continuous testing.

Ever cloud has a silver lining

"The versatility and reach of the cloud has turned the testing market on its head. At a stroke, retailers can afford to provision servers from locations across the globe to conduct in-depth testing that is dynamic, as it is scalable. Moreover, the tests accurately reflect real-world scenarios because they are anchored in precisely that environment, allowing retailers the assurance to plan ahead and predict with a high degree of confidence how their website and apps are likely to perform during spikes and peaks in traffic. 

"Critically, retailers are able to undertake continuous testing and use the data that is generated to gain valuable real-time insights into how performance issues affect their consumers and take steps to remedy any potential problems."

The growth in online commerce and the shift to mobile commerce is only set to increase. Bisley said the test facing retailers is how they manage their customers’ expectations. 

"The answer would appear to lie in embracing testing as a core competency and utilising the power of the cloud to get onto the front foot to better understand how a delay of a few seconds while a page loads can be the difference between a successful conversion and a lost opportunity," he concluded. "In answer to the question whether testing is easier said than done, I believe that testing is easier to do than people imagine."

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