Troubleshooting the Ecommerce Holidays & Capturing Your Share of December’s $57 Billion

Troubleshooting the Ecommerce Holidays & Capturing Your Share of December’s $57 Billion

Ashley VanMeter’s message to @jcrew_help during this year’s Cyber Monday was polite, measured … and far from alone. 

“Hi there, been trying to place an order online for over an hour and the server keeps timing out… what’s up?”

Thousands of complaints — not just to J. Crew, but a host of other name-brand retailers like Nike, Macy’s, and Lowe’s — accompanied Ashley’s as a flood of traffic and orders crashed each online store.

Of course, ecommerce holiday fails don’t have to be public to be painful. 

Whether your misstep made headlines or just fell short of Black Friday, Cyber Monday projections, the good news is that — according to the most recent data from Adobe Digital Insights — of the expected $107.4 billion in total ecommerce holiday sales this year … roughly $57 billion is still up for grabs.

remaining holiday shopping revenue

With that in mind, let’s look at how to troubleshoot and dominate the rest of the ecommerce holidays. In fact, if you’re looking for immediate help, jump ahead to point five. Otherwise …

Billions are still to be had

Now is the time to make sure this holiday season is your most profitable ever. To help you do that, we’ve created the Black Friday, Cyber Monday Health Check.

Inside, you’ll find a detailed checklist to guide you through the rest of December and into 2018.


Download your holiday guide today

1. Make a Great First Impression, Three Times

Your First “First” Impression: Onsite

It only takes a blink of an eye for someone to size your store up. Seriously: 50 milliseconds is all you get to form a first impression online. And 94% of the time it comes down to design.

But design isn’t necessarily how something looks. Steve Jobs once reminded us that, “design is how something works.”

Take carousel sliders, for instance. This ever-popular feature stuffed on most ecommerce websites routinely cause problems across the board, including:

  1. Usability: Carousel sliders often wreak havoc on mobile devices. They don’t load properly, aren’t truly responsive, or create duplicate content issues that often sabotages your SEO.
  2. Speed: Image and video-heavy slides often cause slow loading times. Which, in turn, drags down site speed at the same time.
  3. Conversions: The worst for last. Carousel sliders are only clicked about 1% of the time. If you only have that minuscule number clicking… you’re looking at a tiny fraction who might ultimately be buying.

In fact, Harrison Jones ran a study on Search Engine Land to put these issues to the test. People often cite multiple goals as a reason behind using sliders, like “Branding” or “Thought Leadership.”

Unfortunately, the click percentage across the board is too weak to justify its use.

carousel sliders click percentage

Rather than overwhelm holiday shoppers with multiple choices, make the main thing the main thing. This is especially true of your hero image, mobile design, and using the science of ecommerce eye-tracking to plot your layout.

Your Second “First” Impression: Email

A whopping 74.4% of consumers expect some kind of welcome email after signing up for a new list. They’re looking for confirmation, next steps, how to redeem a coupon, or even — in the case of a purchase — how to get a refund.

This oft-overlooked step is in the retailer’s best interest, too. Subscribers who receive a welcome email are 33% more likely to engage with a brand long-term than those who don’t.

And ultimately, long-term customers are the only profitable ones you’ve got.

Harvard Business Review has worked with Bain Consulting over a few decades to show how much new customers often cost companies. An online grocer, for example, has to retain customers for 18 months just to recoup their $80 customer acquisition cost. That means they’re in the red for over a full year after nabbing that first purchase.

customer life-cycle ecommerce

But that’s just a grocer, right? Not a modern, sophisticated online retailer.

Except, for one thing. That same research also found that online-only companies actually spend 20-40% more than their brick-and-mortar counterparts on new customer acquisition.

So yes. Welcome emails should become a standard part of your holiday and year-round arsenal.

But you can’t stop there.

The visitor who opts into your email list is different than one committing to a new $100 product kit. And both pale in comparison to the those dropping five-figures on gifts.

In other words, each requires a different welcome email. The initial sign-up form and conditions can be used to ultimately segment all three groups into their own lists.

For instance, if you browse around The Elephant Pant’s homepage before deciding to leave without purchasing … up pops an exit intent overlay.

The Elephant Pant's homepage

In many ways, this is standard online fare.

What’s not standard is transforming a subscriber into a first-time customer, into a repeat customer, into a loyal customer … through a loyalty-driving email lifecycle.

For example, once a new customer is inside your email funnel, partners like Swell Rewards or LoyaltyLion provide everything you need to use different points of conversion to automatically segment customer lists on the back-end. That way, you can easily up the ante to loyalty programs designed to keep people around for the long haul.

The simplest way to kickstart this process is to incentivize the action you want and then … give your new subscribers exactly what they asked for.

For example, Frankies Bikinis also uses ongoing sweepstakes offer to entice new visitors to take the first, small commitment.

Frankies Bikinis sweepstakes

All purchases are commitments. And most shoppers today are commitment-phobes. Using micro-actions, like signing up for an email list or referral program, is an easy first step to gain their trust so that you can ultimately convert them down the road.

Your Third “First” Impression: Unboxing

Once someone does cross the finish line, you need to reaffirm their good decision. Crafting a memorable unboxing experience is the perfect antidote to buyer’s remorse for retailers with physical products.

A survey by Dotcom Distribution found that 40% of shoppers are more likely to buy from a company again if their first item was packaged in some sort of premium boxing.

how packaging impacts brand perception

Take Beard & Blade as an example. Since their founding a decade ago, they’ve managed to rack up over 200,000+ customers across their 1,000+ products.

Not too shabby. Especially when you consider that their products are routinely priced several times higher than the competition.

The Beard Starter Kit features their proprietary oil and shampoo blends. Both are all-natural and vegan-friendly. Those are great ingredients. But how can most consumers tell the difference between those and ones that cost a fifth of the price?

I’ll give you a hint: they can’t.

Unboxing helps give you an extra edge to re-affirming those high expectations you set when collecting $38 bucks for two product bottles.

Beard & Blade starter kit packaging

Image via Beard & Blade

Boxes with clean design, excellent branding, and high-quality construction help convey the experience you’re attempting to get across. People can see, touch, feel, and smell the difference.

The same applies to the individual product design within each box. The old-timey, heavy-duty brush, straight edge blade, and foaming mug are perfect for your favorite hipster.

Beard & Blade product design

Beard & Blade’s starting products are beautiful. And the Apple-esque unboxing experience does them justice. They’re masters at setting expectations from the initial site visit all the way through to the product’s arrival.

The question is: how to do manage hundreds if not thousands of first-impressions all at once?

2. Monitor Real-Time Ecommerce Holiday Analytics

Running into trouble is, unfortunately, par for the course over Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Prevention is your prime contingency plan.

Real-time analytics, when used correctly, can help you spot troubling trends as they’re developing as you move through the rest of the season. That way, you can interfere before it’s too late.

Two Shopify dashboards offer merchants exactly this. The first is Live View, which lets you track …

  • Current visitors
  • Onsite behaviors
  • Active carts and checkouts
  • Completed sales
  • Daily totals

Shopify live view

Watch live as you send holiday emails, launch new Facebook ads, post discounts, and more. By monitoring traffic and sales as they unfold, you can shift your strategy before the frenzy passes.

The second real-time tool is Launchpad, available exclusively to Shopify Plus customers. As a command-center for commerce events, Launchpad’s dashboard gives you even more fine-grain live reporting like …

  • Sales, orders, and average order values
  • Products sold, best-seller, and inventory levels
  • Customer conversion data

In addition to live reporting, Launchpad’s real power comes in automating full-scale campaigns, flash sales, and online events — like holidays.

First, you can select when the event starts and ends. That way, the conditions you’re about to set will automatically expire and return to normal when it’s over.

Second, you can apply discounts to individual products or entire collections. Discounts across collections can also be customized individually. Theme and content changes — like new pages, design updates, banners, CTAs, and more — can also be preloaded.

Third, Shopify Scripts can be used to offer custom checkout experiences like free gifts, free shipping, and special discounts based on spending thresholds or specific products.

Launchpad events Shopify Scripts

All of these event components are like levers. Each can be adjusted or manipulated to increase or throttle demand.

That way, you can react in real-time before too much demand backfires.

Outside of Shopify, you can use services like Pingdom to augment your real-time site performance data. They’ll even let you set live alerts or notifications so you can respond ASAP when errors or issues do pop up.

Too much of a good thing can turn out ugly online. Think of major press and ad campaigns all landing at the same time over an already-busy Black Friday. Servers that host your site are like a dam. Too much pressure or volume building up at the same time can cause everything to break.

Pingdom will allow you to track visits to your site and any impact they might have on your downtime as it’s unfolding.

Pingdom track visits

You can also dive deeper to spot trends or patterns behind what’s knocking your site offline.

Pingdom trends

A site remaining ‘up’ isn’t your only concern, though. Sluggish websites can also cripple conversions (as you’ll see in the next section below). Pingdom as well helps you track load times in real-time to make sure there are no sudden delays.

Pingdom track load times

They’ll even help you figure out which site elements, specifically, are slowing down your site the most. That makes it easier to identify the problem and react accordingly before it’s too late.

But there’s another analytical ingredient you’ll need …

3. Analyze Historical Data to Identify Profitable Future Trends

Real-time analytics can help you in the moment. However, if you’re looking to win this year’s remaining ecommerce holidays — and plan for next year at the same time — historical data should be your focus.

Fortunately, your job becomes easier if you’re tracking just a few key metrics.

Product Sales and Sales Per Hour, for example, can help you keep a pulse on both inventory levels or your own marketing and promotion effectiveness.

Dayparting is an advertising concept used to identify the most profitable times to run a campaign (to drive the most product sales).

Typically, you’re looking to maximize Return on Ad Spend. But you can also use this concept in reverse if you’re worried about selling too much, too quickly.

Many online ad platforms like WordStream or AdEspresso will allow you to set automated rules to either increase or back off budgets during certain days of the week or times of the day.

AdEspresso dayparting scheduling campaigns

Image via AdEspresso

The individual Traffic Sources driving those sales can also help you pinpoint which campaigns are driving which results.

Just be careful how you’re reading the data. For instance, if you look inside Google Analytics (or similar), you’ll usually see that Direct traffic is responsible for ~30% of site visits and a healthy chunk of sales.

direct traffic metrics

Except that number is almost always inaccurate. It’s overstated, stealing sales from ad campaigns, SEO, or social that aren’t being attributed properly.

Groupon proved this years ago by “de-indexing” their site for a few hours. That means they told Google to stop crawling their site and including it in the search results. The ultimate finding was that 60% of their reported Direct traffic was actually supposed to be organic search (or SEO) traffic.

direct traffic vs organic traffic

The lesson? You should absolutely look at different traffic sources are influencing sales. But data lies. So be careful about the conclusions you’re drawing.

Sales from Facebook ads might be lower than expected. However, that might not have anything do with the actual ad campaigns themselves. Slow product pages and websites are like silent conversion killers. You don’t even realize that’s the problem until it’s too late.

Google recently confirmed this widespread issue when they released new mobile page speed industry benchmarks. Their data found that the “probability of someone bouncing from your site increases by 113 percent if it takes seven seconds to load.”

page load time stats

Time and again, Google was able to show that slower sites result in lower conversions. Period, end of story:

“Similarly, as the number of elements—text, titles, images—on a page goes from 400 to 6,000, the probability of conversion drops 95 percent.”

Those are troubling statistics considering that Google is slowly moving to a mobile-first index for SEO. So not only will conversions take a hit. But search visibility (e.g., rankings, organic traffic, etc.) also stands to drop precipitously.

4. Prevent Conversion-Killing Issues from Striking

Once you’ve analyzed the data, you can address issues accordingly. But it’s one thing to determine the problem, and it’s quite another to determine the cause or do something before it happens again.

Let’s take a look at a common dilemma …

Too much inventory on-hand and you’re wasting cash. Too little, and you’re losing out on sales.

Somehow, someway, you need a healthy balance.

The problem is that sales typically explode during the ecommerce holidays. It’s easy to manage inventory levels throughout the year when you can use historical sales data to project consistent demand.

But during the holidays? All bets are off. Especially when you consider that holiday events can typically generate up to 3–4x your average daily sales.

To make matters worse, these daily order numbers often fluctuate wildly from country to country as Black Friday continues to pop-up on international soils.

ecommerce holiday growth worldwide

In other words, it’s incredibly difficult to estimate the “right” inventory level. That’s even truer when you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of products at scale.

Inventory Levels can help you keep a close watch on the number of products flying off the virtual shelves. The secret is to combine your inventory levels with the power of Flow to automatically reorder products in time.

You can set up workflows that will trigger when product inventory levels fall below a certain threshold.

Then, you can plan out what should happen next to make sure new products are ordered. Multiple steps can be planned in advance, like the product automatically being removed from the site, to make sure you’re not overselling that might threaten customer expectations.

Inventory Levels Flow

Creating workflows like this helps you identify conditions. Waiting until you’re below ten products might be cutting it too thin. Maybe distribution is taking longer than normal.

So you can adjust each variable over time to fine-tune operations. The closer you get to that magic inventory level, the better the cash management, ROI, and customer experience ultimately.

5. Replicate, Isolate, and Troubleshoot the Problem

Consolidating your online platform under one roof can solve a lot of problems.

But inevitably, you still have people from all over the world, on different devices, using different operating systems, in different languages, all trying to buy from your store.

One-time problems or inconsistencies are tough to address. They can often be cost-prohibitive to chase down, too. It’s the big, recurring ones that can put a dent in your 4th quarter P&L.

The first step is to see if you can replicate the issue at hand.

For example, someone’s having an issue getting the payment information to load correctly so they can add a credit card. Ok. What device are they using? What browser? What browser version?

Screenshots are critical here, too. They can help your team replicate, or reverse-engineer the problem someone’s having to see if it’s something that might be plaguing others as well.

Many times this will lead you to filter out “local” issues that aren’t being caused by your site or servers. Instead, these problems are typically on the user’s end, including:

  • Browser or firewall issues
  • Device or operating system problems
  • Or problems centered around geographic areas based on internet provider or government restrictions

Second, Shopify’s Status Page can also help you determine if this is an isolated event or system-wide issue. Engineers are performing 24/7 monitoring and will update any unusual problems within minutes of occurring.

Shopify Status Pag

Pingdom, mentioned earlier, can tell you if there’s a problem onsite (as opposed to one on Shopify's servers). And this leads to …

Third, check your third-party apps, themes, and plugins.

While all our Shopify’s apps and themes and vetted before being allowed into the ecosystem, the reality is that you may have multiple packages of code, created by different people, being used simultaneously. So problems do pop up from time-to-time.

A rule of thumb is to always test new apps and themes on your “backup” or staging development store, first. You want to replicate the exact working conditions as your live, production site. That way, you should be able to spot problems on the backup version before ever pushing the problematic app combination to the site your visitors are hitting.

Fourth, Shopify’s Guru team can also help you test drive these settings. Connect through email, chat, or phone by heading over to Settings > Account page.

Shopify Guru team

Fifth and finally, you can also login to your Shopify Plus admin account and find the live chat option on the upper right-hand side.

Shopify Plus live chat

Even better, our Merchant Acceptation team has put together a support cheat sheet to quickly run through this series of steps, in sequence, and resolve any issues that strike.

holiday ecommerce support cheat sheet

There’s Still Time to Win the Ecommerce Holidays

Site glitches are common. Too many visitors can crash even the most secure self-hosted servers. And, operational headaches can also spell disaster.

Whatever mistakes you might have made, thankfully … $57 billion means it’s anything but too late to make this year your most profitable ever.

Billions are still to be had …

Whether you had a record-breaking Black Friday, Cyber Monday or not, now is the time to make sure the rest of your holiday season is your most profitable ever.

To help you do that, we’ve created the Black Friday, Cyber Monday Health Check.

Inside, you’ll find a detailed checklist to guide you through the rest of December and into 2018.


Download your holiday guide today

Photo of Brad Smith

About the Author

Brad Smith is the founder of Codeless, a SaaS content creation company. Frequent contributor to Kissmetrics, Unbounce, WordStream, AdEspresso, Search Engine Journal, Canva, and more.