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Avoid the chaos: your last-minute Black Friday checklist

With just four weeks to go until Black Friday, Drapers looks at the last-minute preparation retailers should focus on.

Last year, the scale of Black Friday on November 28 took many fashion retailers by surprise. Nobody expected the dip in sales before it, nor the extent to which it boosted orders on the day. Sales were up 91.6% on the year before, according to IBM. Altogether, £810m was spent in the UK. Chaos ensued: a number of websites, such as Net-a-Porter, crashed as traffic surged, while courier firms like Yodel struggled to deliver within the timescales promised to customers. While some retailers basked in soaring sales, others risked severe reputational damage.  

This year’s Black Friday, which falls on November 27, is set to be even bigger. Retailers forecast order volumes will be 20% higher than in 2014 as more UK consumers grow wise to the bargain-hunting opportunities and hold off on shopping in the days and weeks leading up to Black Friday. Sales will hit the £1bn mark on the day, according to ecommerce consultancy Salmon. With Black Friday quickly followed by Cyber Monday on November 30, and Christmas and Boxing Day only weeks later, the advice to retailers is this: if you haven’t already planned your peak periods down to the last detail, you’d better do it now. As the clock ticks down, here are some things you can do to make sure you’re ready.

Embrace meetings – and data

Black Friday is still somewhat of an unknown quantity for retailers in the UK, so communication is even more important than usual. “We’ve had initial conversations, but we’ll have more detailed meetings in the weeks and days leading up to Black Friday,” says Karl Harwood, head of shipping at Missguided. His team sits down regularly with everyone else involved in peak trading, from IT to merchandising, sales, operations and finance, to go over their forecasts and spot any potential problems. Carole Woodhead, UK chief executive of Germany-based courier company Hermes, recommends having daily – or even hourly, during peak times – conversations with the key players.

Retailers will have done most of their forecasting already, but if you haven’t, take a good look at the data now. “Preparing for chaos is perhaps the best way to approach Black Friday,” says Darryl Adie, managing director of ecommerce agency Ampersand. “Using Google Analytics data from last year’s festive period should give retailers a good idea of when peaks will occur.

“Retailers should dig into hour-by-hour analytics data from last year’s festive period and execute performance testing. If, from testing, it becomes clear that certain systems may fail and there is not ample time to fix or prevent failure, retailers should contact their technology partners. Chances are they may be able to help, even this close to Black Friday.”

Test your technology

Given the headlines last year about a number of websites crashing on Black Friday, investment in infrastructure is a must. For retailers, a sudden increase in traffic and transactions puts a huge burden on systems built for handling much lower demand – and a crashed website immediately halts sales and can affect brand reputation.

“No one can afford to disappoint this year, so make sure you have the capacity on site and in logistics to cope with the volume,” advises New Look’s ecommerce director Sally Heath. Her team will be working in the office seven days a week instead of the usual five from early November to support the extra demand. “This is very useful for, say, remerchandising the website, dealing with customer issues and making any changes to content on the Saturday after Black Friday,” says Heath. “The traditional nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday working week is archaic in this new world.”

Sean McKee, head of ecommerce for Schuh, agrees: “Plan for likely stress on all systems so that website uptime, speed and all normal service and communication standards can be maintained. Make a judgement call on likely increased demand growth on the day and comprehensively load-test for that scenario.”

Adie emphasises the need to avoid outages at all costs: “A consumer’s main objective is checking out and, as a result, disabling additional functionality may be necessary in order to deliver a consistent customer experience. Turning off personalised elements of the store, such as mini baskets, recently viewed products and recommendations, will take pressure off the website’s back-end and ensure its transactional power is not too seriously impeded. Customers won’t care about innovative personalised homepages if they are unable to check out on the biggest Sale day of the year.”

Be realistic about fulfilment

Last year, a number of retailers, such as Debenhams and Marks & Spencer, were forced to delay online deliveries because they couldn’t keep up with Black Friday demand. The advice this year is to work closely with the delivery companies, to be clear about capacity and to manage customers’ expectations by making realistic promises.

There are several last-minute changes you could make, such as turning off fulfilment for online orders from the busiest or smallest stores, or fulfilling directly from your distribution centre, says Adie. Woodhead gives the example of Footasylum, which is planning to cap click-and-collect in its own stores and use Hermes for the overflow.

Missguided predicts orders will be up 40% compared to last year’s Black Friday. It is considering removing its next-day delivery option and offering a one-to-two-day service during the period instead. Harwood says: “This year we will be doing some sales internationally [Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand] as well, which makes it harder to predict. We use eight different carriers, so as a distribution team the challenge is matching the trends to the destination markets and giving accurate forecasts. You need to work out the basics: how many vehicles to order and the space and capacity needed.”

Woodhead agrees: “Each and every retailer should have a plan for the number of parcels we will send at peak and the number of trailers we’ll send out. We need to know what delivery times you’re promising, so we’re clear and there’s a contingency plan in place.”

Have a promotional strategy

Even if it’s thrown together at the last minute, think your promotional strategy through. How are you going to get your messages across? How will you make them stand out? How much activity will you do before, during and after November 27? “Customers are savvy enough to know there will be deals, but the market will be noisy so it’s essential to have a marketing plan that ensures you get noticed,” says Heath.

Retailers should think about their presence throughout the day, targeting messages according to the time. eBay Enterprise recommends making the most of the morning peak, from 7am to 10am, but also driving sales towards the end of the day by promoting any remaining deals and targeting abandoned baskets from earlier in the day.

Once the promotional plan is in place, it’s important to ensure everyone in the business understands its intended execution. “Communicate the basics to all interested parties,” says McKee. “Develop a clear marketing plan to ensure optimum presentation and co-ordination of message on and across the day. Identify which existing inventory will be included in any promotion.”

Put the staff in place

Finally, ensure you are properly staffed for Black Friday and the following few days. “Plan carefully for workload at the distribution centre, customer service centres and stores and allocate staff appropriately,” says McKee. If there are delays in the service they should be communicated to customers through email, website messaging and social media. eBay Enterprise recommends outsourcing the overflow of your customer care services to increase capacity when needed. 

Very Exclusive managing director Sarah Curran will share her views on Black Friday at the Drapers Fashion Forum on November 19. Visit fashionforum.drapersonline.com for the agenda and to book your place.

 

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