Will the holidays make or break your systems?

Anything facing customers will get a workout, but there's no excuse for a breakdown.

Every year the burst of retail buying in the last six weeks of the year stresses the ecommerce, ERP, accounting, supply chain and every other customer-related system in any company with significant retail sales or whose customers are retail operations.

The National Retail Federation predicts overall holiday sales will be 2.3 percent higher than last year -- following shrinkage of 4 percent in 2008 and a rebound in 2009 that brought the growth line just above 0 percent.

Forrester Research predicts consumers will make 37 percent of those purchases online, compared to 30 percent last year, so that channel continues to grow.

The NRF survey shows those who buy online buy 25 percent more than average adults and more of them (42 percent) start shopping before Halloween.

The focus is on "value" rather than "price," which is meaningless in any real context, so we'll just skip it and go back to the capacity planning.

App performance is always a big part of user satisfaction, and user satisfaction is always lower when the system is getting pounded, whether the network and all the individual components you control are performing within parameters or not.

Retail analysts ForeSee Results reported that the satisfaction of online shoppers dropped about three percent in 2009; and the year before, and the year before that.

There's no good reason for that, the company CEO said, especially when the rush season is so predictable and e-tailers have so much warning. Not to mention (which he didn't) so many resources in the form of cloud, CoLo and managed hosting services that can be used at comparatively low cost for overflow capacity management, disaster recovery and performance optimization.

Significant parts of the downtime Uptrends.com reported last year were due to concentrated DDOS attacks. It's possible to plan and accommodate even those, with the right service provider and the right budget.

Forrester estimates 40 percent of shoppers will drop away if a page takes more than three seconds to load. So the stakes are not low.

Keynote, which also publishes a Retail Web Performance Index that measures average responsiveness, has a survival guide for ecommerce prep and contingency planning. So does Sungard, though getting survival tips from a DR company is a bit like talking over hydration strategies in the desert with a vulture.

Of course, there's a lot of relationship management involved in the whole customer thing, so you might want to think twice about the wording of anything you put out to reassure customers your site will be available and performing snappily when they come to shop. You probably don't want to sound quite as defiant or braced against an invasion as the NRF's Joe LaRocca did in his Nov. 5 blog entry: Retailers to Shoppers: We're ready for you.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Len Radin

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