For anyone operating an e-commerce retail store, the winter holidays are both beautiful and terrifying. It’s the biggest time of year for sales, so store owners and marketing managers rejoice! But for those in customer service, user experience, and engineering, it can be a nerve-wracking season of action-packed, 24-hour on call shifts. And if you’re the sole proprietor of a smaller online shop? Well, that means you’re all of the above jobs rolled into one stressed-out ball.

You can head off a ton of support and engineering tasks before the holiday rush by preparing your site and equipping your staff (or yourself) with some essential tools. It’s all about efficiency: if your site performs well under heavy loads, your user experience is intuitive, and your customer service folks have the right tools to close tickets, you may find the holidays aren’t so intimidating. You may even find you have a little more time to spend with friends and family spreading holiday cheer.

Optimize your site performance so heavy traffic doesn’t bring you down.

If this section had a theme song, it would be “Under Pressure.” It’s not just how you feel when looking at your web hosting bills: it’s how your site feels when your traffic suddenly ramps up 10x. Will your site’s performance keep up under extreme traffic conditions?

The good news is, if you’re using a shopping cart SaaS app like Shopify, BigCommerce, or Zenstores to host your online shop, you don’t have to worry about your site’s performance. They do.

If you host your own website, whether you own your own servers or use a hosting service (you fall into this bucket if you’re using WooCommerce or Magento, for example), you’ll need to get your hands dirty as you prepare for the holiday season. Use a performance monitoring tool like Calibre or Rigor to understand how pages load for your customers and discover quick wins that could make a huge impact on their experience. You can even measure the page load speed for an entire shopping cart flow, such as Home Page > Search for an Item > Add to Cart, as we’ve done here in Rigor:

Above, see a screenshot from Rigor of the performance of our "Fruitshoppe."

For a free taste of what these paid apps can do, check out Google’s PageSpeed Insights. It will run an analysis of your site and point out some optimization best practices you might not already be using, although it won’t be as in-depth as what you’d learn from a full-featured performance monitoring tool.

Don’t neglect mobile, or mobile users will neglect your shop.

Set up your performance monitoring tool to emulate mobile devices and connection speeds.

While you’re in your performance monitoring app, make sure you check out the mobile insights. In 2016, 34% of online retail purchases happened on a mobile device.

You might not see how that’s a bad thing, until you realize that mobile shoppers are also some of the hardest to please from a customer experience standpoint. In a study examining data from across the web, Google discovered 53% of mobile visits are abandoned if a page takes longer than 3 seconds to load. Sure, 3 seconds seems like a generous amount of time, but in reality, the average load time for mobile sites is 19 seconds over a 3G connection.

In your performance monitoring tool, be sure to configure a mobile testing profile. Testing profiles are simulated users; most apps default to Chrome on Desktop. Try something like iPhone on a 3G network to get a better idea of your site’s mobile speeds, and be sure to implement any easy recommendations right away.

Your site’s UX is the biggest hurdle, so take the time to perfect it.

Performance is only the first stumbling block on your customer’s path to making a purchase. Your overall user experience is the second hurdle, and the third, and the fourth… all the way through the final hurdle: the checkout page.

It pays well to make your layout as intuitive as possible and cut any confusion or friction from your shopping flows. But for several reasons, designers aren’t the best judges of their own designs. In order to get honest, objective criticism of your online shop you’ll need to employ some variety of user testing.

If you go the traditional route, user testing involves finding (and paying) people to use your site and either record a voice narration of their experience or answer a questionnaire. This technique works fine for setting a baseline to improve upon, but it has a few drawbacks:

  1. These testers pursue their assigned task with dogged determination, so you won’t get any valuable insights that show bounces or early exits from the flow,
  2. The results aren’t continuous, so you can’t see if your user experience improves after an update unless you employ more testers, and
  3. The sample size is quite small.

That’s where a session replay tool such as FullStory comes in. Recordings of real customers’ sessions show you with brutal honesty where there’s friction on your site, which pages are causing premature exits, and how you can smooth things over to make the customer’s race to the checkout as easy as possible.

“Zenstores has a variety of carefully considered conversion funnels that we’d like prospective customers to flow through. FullStory gives us the ability to see exactly how a user did—or more importantly didn’t—flow through that path the way we wanted.”
—Alex Myers, Head of Marketing

Account for a variety of browsers and screen sizes.

Review your checkout funnel using each of the big mainstream browsers: Chrome, Safari, Firefox, MS Edge, and Opera. Now set your screen resolution as low as it will go and do it again. Now switch to a different operating system and do both of those steps again. Now jump on an iPad and do it. A windows tablet. An Android phone. An iPhone.

You can see where I’m going with this. Just make sure your shop looks good, or at the very least works, on every combination of browser and device your customers could possibly be using[1]. These days, you can’t get away with “We recommend you use Google Chrome for the best experience” messages. By the time a visitor reads that, they’re hitting the back button and going to a competitor’s store. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

You could do all this manually, but you could also pop open FullStory or the other session replay tool you chose from the previous section. FullStory has filters that let you select replays from customers on a particular browser and device, such as Chrome on Windows, or Safari on iPhone. Watch those sessions and take note of any glaring errors or rendering problems, then make sure your fixes are pushed before the holiday shoppers rush in!

We can watch sessions from every combination of browser and device with FullStory to make sure we’re optimized for 90% of the market.
—Michael Moore, Moosejaw

Equip your customer service team with session replay so they can breeze through their inboxes.

Another (huge) benefit to installing a session replay tool is the boost to your ability to provide customer service. Without session replay, you or your CS team may need to ask clarifying questions or request screenshots to resolve any less-than-obvious tickets. But the more times you need to email back and forth with a customer before answering their concern, the more frustrated they get, and the longer your queue becomes as new tickets pile up behind open ones.

When your service agents can replay the customer’s session, they see exactly what the customer tripped over, how they’ve already tried to resolve the problem on their own, and how you can help them achieve their goal. All but the most complex tickets can be closed in a single touch, freeing up your representatives to tackle the next problem (and maybe even giving them some breathing room to take a walk or grab some coffee).

If your store provides real-time customer service via phone or live chat, look for a tool that also provides co-browsing capabilities. FullStory really shines for customer support, as our Go Live feature gives CS agents the ability to drop in on a customer’s session in live time, letting them troubleshoot instantly while on a call or chat.

Are you ready for the holiday shopping season?

Hopefully these tips have prepared you for the oncoming rush. If you’re interested in getting started with FullStory, click here to sign up for your free account. Enjoy watching those orders roll in, and happy holidays to you and your team!

  1. Read more on the problem of one-size-fits-all strategies on the web through a story about how the Air Force found there'es no such thing as an average pilot. ↩︎