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Christmas Web: Will Cyber Monday Break the Internet in 2015?

While Thanksgiving remains a solely American holiday, businesses around the globe have for decades looked to the day after Turkey Day as the official start of the holiday shopping season. As crazed shoppers descend on stores the world over in search of the season’s newest and trendiest products being offered at insane holiday discounts, retail profits typically show spikes unequalled by any other day of the shopping year. Yet the guarantee of sales numbers being pushed well into the black isn’t the only reason why this day has been dubbed “Black Friday.”

The term itself comes from ominous economic origins. “Black Friday” was initially used to describe the date in 1869 when an attempt to take over the gold market in the New York Stock Exchange caused a domestic financial crisis. Not until 1961 was it first used by a Philadelphia newspaper in reference to the busiest shopping day of the year. Yet since that time, as the post-Thanksgiving shopping crowds have grown, so to have the number of nasty incidents occurring amidst the rush of holiday shoppers. 2008 saw the first recorded fatality from Black Friday, when a Walmart employee was trampled to death by an onrush of shoppers complaining that they had been waiting in line too long for their holiday deals to stop and render aid. While such tragedies remain few and far between, Black Friday participants are assured of having to deal with huge crowds in frenzied states and stressed-out employees overwhelmed by the mass of humanity.

The Fall of Black Friday

As the apparent civility of holiday shopping crowds has declined, e-commerce sales have skyrocketed. While there are many shopping enthusiasts who enjoy the atmosphere of holiday shopping, the ability to make all of one’s holiday purchases in the comfort and convenience of his or her own home has proven to appeal to the millions of others who’d just as soon not put their lives as stake by braving the Black Friday lines at Toys R’ Us. Sales statistics have shown that this crowd has continued to grow in recent years, even to the point of winning over converts from the in-store crowd. While the crowds still remain large at retail locations, those numbers have been in a steady decline since 2010. Results also show that those who do go out tend to spend less and less each year.

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The gradual fall of Black Friday has given rise to Cyber Monday, the name given to the Monday following Thanksgiving weekend when online customers take to the web en masse in to do their Christmas shopping. Of course, these customers avoid many of the hassles that have come to be associated with the post-Thanksgiving shopping crowd. This year saw Cyber Monday shatter previous sales records, with over $2.68 billion being spent worldwide. Yet the shift to Cyber Monday hasn’t come without its own share of issues.

Potential Problems for Online Holiday Shoppers

Those who have become accustomed to the convenience that e-commerce provides have often been unpleasantly surprised to learn that just as is the case with brick-and-mortar retailers, online stores can experience many of the same traffic control issues when they become jammed with holiday shoppers. Many of these problems have caught online retailers unaware and unprepared to resolve issues with their sites, leaving them scrambling to try and accommodate customers on the busiest shopping day of the year.

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The first mass wave of retail website failures due to Cyber Monday crowds was witnessed in 2011, when several of the top online retailers experienced outages greater than 10 minutes. According to the web monitoring site, the breakdown of those who suffered from outages and the actual amount of time that their websites were down was as follows:

  • PC Mall: 128 minutes
  • Newegg: 60 minutes
  • Toys R’ Us: 32 minutes
  • Avon: 30 minutes
  • Crate and Barrel: 22 minutes
  • Nordstrom: 12 minutes
  • Barnes and Noble: 10 minutes
  • W. Grainger: 10 minutes

While the average availability of these sites was still over 94 percent, these outages resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses for each of these companies individually. While almost all of these companies remedied the issues that lead to their outages in time to experience improved web performance the following year, web downtime continues to remain a problem inherent with Cyber Monday.

Yet website outages have never been the greatest problem that online retailers face on Cyber Monday. The huge spike in traffic leads to the inevitable problem of page latency. Virtual lines can cause shoppers many of the same headaches as actual lines, particularly when shopping on mobile devices. Statistics show that in 2012, Cyber Monday saw the average time for mobile page loads increase to over 18 seconds. This could present a potentially huge problem for e-commerce merchants, as 2014 sales figures showed that more than 41 percent of Cyber Monday traffic came from mobile devices.

Solutions to Cyber Monday Issues

Yet even in the face of these problems, web hosts and service providers have proven to be remarkably efficient at handling the issues that Cyber Monday can present. Even though major Cyber Monday players such as Amazon and FedEx had close calls in 2014, advances in web hosting technologies have allowed web traffic from overloaded servers to be rerouted to help handle higher volumes. Cloud technology has proven to be veritable holiday miracle to online retail sites, allowing web traffic to be easily transferred to a different data center location in the event of a server failure. These advances allowed for the best site reliability statistics in the history of Cyber Monday in 2014, with an average availability of 99.702 percent.

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Along with technological advances, improvements in the management of web traffic by retailers themselves have also resulted in increased online shopper satisfaction around the holidays. Many have taken to linking disclaimers on their home pages and weekly ads stating the potential for longer page load times. These disclaimers often include direct links to their customer service departments.

The meteoric rise in the popularity of e-commerce ensures that Cyber Monday will remain a fixture of the holiday lexicon. If recent sales figures show us anything, it’s that post-Thanksgiving online sales spikes could spell the once-unthinkable demise of another holiday tradition: Black Friday. Yet just as brick-and-mortar retailers were able to adapt their strategies for dealing with customer traffic to deal with the monstrous crowds that became so synonymous with the day after Thanksgiving, so too have online merchants shown the ability to effectively handle Cyber Monday web traffic. Their successes project a bright outlook for web performance and reliability on Cyber Monday in 2015 and beyond.

Top image ©GL Stock Images

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