How to Bag Outstanding Holiday Performance
eBags.com’s Mike Frazzini talks about handling the holiday crush and achieving breakthrough performance on desktop and mobile.
The holidays can make or break a retailer’s numbers, and online retailers are no exception. Ensuring flawless site performance and the ability to handle surges in holiday traffic is key to online success. eBags.com has ingrained performance management into its corporate culture, from the C-suite down through every department, and the results prove the difference it can make. In 2011, nearly flawless availability and super speed helped eBags.com rack up a record-breaking holiday, and they’re planning to do it again this year. Benchmark talked to Vice President of Technical Operations Mike Frazzini to get a taste of eBags.com’s secret sauce that’s behind their category-leading performance.
Benchmark: It’s the time of year when online retailers should be well into their preparations for the holiday season. eBags.com had a really big year last year. What are you expecting this year?
Mike Frazzini: Last year was actually amazing. This year we’re expecting it to be much bigger. We’ve made a huge number of site improvements, both the user experience and functionality, as well as under the covers with our platform to improve performance and availability.
Beyond that our offering has grown dramatically. We have a lot of big initiatives with respect to our huge selection of all sorts of bags. We have a handbags.com site as well, that a lot of people don’t know about, that specializes in handbags and fashion accessories. We’re starting to get a lot of traction on that.
But most importantly, for the eBags core site we expect huge growth for a lot of reasons – but particularly for our eBags brand of product, which we’ve received quite a bit of industry accolades on, as well as just a lot of great demand and success. Our branded product is our highest-rated product across the site.
So you combine all of that, and even though we had a phenomenal year last year, we’re expecting substantial growth – in the 30 percent range over prior year with even bigger spikes on the big days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Benchmark: With the record year you had last year, can you tell us a little bit about the performance of your sites? Did you have any hiccups?
Mike Frazzini: It really performed flawlessly over the holiday season. We achieved greater than four 9’s availability and we smashed our performance goals over that time as well.
Benchmark: Do you publish those performance goals? Can you share them?
Mike Frazzini: Obviously we have a lot of detailed goals, but at a high level our directional performance goals are under two seconds for desktop page load. And that’s all in –all dependent requests and any third-party objects that may be called on the page.
We’re expecting under two seconds for the home page and some of the major department pages. And we add a second to that for mobile.
Benchmark: Just one second? And are you achieving that?
Mike Frazzini: On the desktop we achieved that during the holiday. We’re still baselining mobile and we understand that is an aggressive goal, but that’s what we’re trying to achieve.
Benchmark: So obviously you did a lot of things right last year in terms of getting your site ready. What are you doing this year to prepare for even more traffic? Is it a repeat of what you did last year? Are you doing anything differently?
Mike Frazzini: We had such great success last year, so we are, as you would imagine, repeating a lot of the same process. We’ve institutionalized a scalability and performance task force that I actually chair. It’s a cross-functional team throughout the organization. It includes people from our marketing team, graphic design team, our architecture and software development team and a lot of the infrastructure and admin teams.
We meet regularly to review performance and Keynote is actually a big part of that. We go through a huge deck of reports every week, and Keynote’s probably a good 40 to 50 percent of what we review to help us assess site performance across four major areas: One is site infrastructure – network and servers. Two is the application itself, the website application and application stack. Three is graphic design and layout, and four is any marketing third-party objects that are involved and that impact site performance.
So that’s a lot of what we’ve done and what we did last year. We’re certainly repeating that, in more depth really. In addition, we’ve upgraded our web application platform, upgraded dot-net. We’re almost a complete dot-net shop at this point with respect to our web application. And we’re expanding our load testing efforts. We did a pretty extensive load testing effort last year – again with Keynote – and we’re expanding that this year to test more areas of the website, and in addition, to do much more in-depth testing of our mobile site.
Benchmark: How does your testing for mobile differ from your desktop testing? What do you do additionally beyond your standard desktop performance program?
Mike Frazzini: Well, last year we didn’t test it as thoroughly. We didn’t test it at the same level we tested the desktop site. This year we are, so it differs this year only that we’re trying to normalize it with what we do for desktop site testing.
Benchmark: To go back to your performance and scalability task force – do the metrics that you’re reviewing there also include the new user experience metrics based on the Navigation Timing API?
Mike Frazzini: We’re very interested in those. We’re just starting to understand and baseline those, with the goal of using them and especially measuring into this holiday season.
Benchmark: How did you arrive at the decision to create the taskforce, and how has it been accepted or embraced organizationally?
Mike Frazzini: Let me go back two and a half years. We found that over the years, eBags has had varying success at achieving our world-class performance and availability goals. And we found that as long as we were focused on performance and scalability, we did quite well.
But there would be times throughout the course of an effort, a development season if you will, where we took our focus away from scalability and performance, and it would decline, as you would expect. So we realized that it’s not just a one-time effort or even a seasonal effort. It’s got to be something that’s institutionalized into the culture of not only software development, but the entire company.
Fortunately our CEO and CTO and senior leadership highly value performance. They understand that it’s not just a hygiene factor for e-commerce, it’s a motivator. It can improve conversion rates and it certainly improves the experience. And in addition to that, we’re measured in the industry, from Internet retail publications that publish numbers to even the Keynote benchmarks that are published. We take those things seriously and we want to make sure that we’re putting in a world-class showing.
And additionally, we came to realize through our marketing team that our SEO efforts – which we’ve been very successful at over the years particularly with Google, but with the other major search engines as well – our SEO efforts were threatened by poor performance and Google was penalizing companies with poor performance. So we wanted to make sure that we were not penalized and that our SEO efforts were not injured by performance.
So a lot of these things came together and we had the realization that this just needed to be an ongoing effort. And everyone I think understood from prior experience that it’s not just a software development or even just an IT focus, it needs to include all the people who have a stake and responsibility – control over important things like, again, third-party pixels that marketing may want to implement on the site, or our graphic design group, which does not reside in IT.
We found there are just as many performance opportunities with the graphic design and layout as there are with the network and system infrastructure and the Web application itself. So everyone understood that we needed to make this a cross-functional team across several different departments.
The great news is that, within just several weeks of institutionalizing this discipline of meeting every week and reviewing the metrics, we were able to very quickly identify performance opportunities, prioritize them and feed them into our software development and production support efforts and get them addressed.
We realized great gains and doubled our performance in terms of page download from the beginning of last year to the point the holiday season started. So everyone understands how valuable this is and how important it is to keep this discipline.
Benchmark: That kind of disciplinary commitment to performance definitely makes a difference from a business perspective. But one area where many people still seem to be lagging in their approach to performance is mobile. Can you tell us a little bit about how the mobile eBags.com site was built, how it was put together and what kind of performance benchmarks you have for it?
Mike Frazzini: We realized early on, mainly through a lot of our own internal Web log analysis and business intelligence, that we were getting a lot of mobile traffic. This was two and a half to three years ago. The strategy wasn’t as clear back then I think, but we decided to focus on a mobile-optimized site strategy and we engaged a third-party that specializes in these kind of mobile-optimized sites.
We engaged them to build and host the mobile optimized site for us, but we have tight integration around product assortment and the transaction and customer security. We still own that piece, but they own the mobile optimization piece of it. One statistic I can give you, going back to that time, was that we found we have a really popular email marketing program that’s very important to eBags, and we found that 30 percent of our email clickthroughs were actually happening on mobile. So that was a big driver into a separate mobile-optimized site strategy. It’s really our m-dot site.
Benchmark: So that was three years ago. Have you stayed basically with the same site? Any major rebuilds since then?
Mike Frazzini: Yes, actually, we’ve just recently rebuilt it. As we’re continuously building out the site experience and features on the desktop site, we’re upgrading the mobile site along the way.
Benchmark: Does the mobile site access the same backend in terms of all of your product listings and data?
Mike Frazzini: Yes, 90 percent of it.
Benchmark: You were quoted in the press as saying that more than 13 percent of your visits during the holiday season last year came from mobile. Has that held up since or has it tailed off? What’s that trend?
Mike Frazzini: Actually the trend is consistent, but we’re seeing growth peaks that have been pushing it higher and we’ve seen days over 15 percent. And we’re definitely seeing more growth in that area, especially growth in conversion. It’s beating our sales projections and expectations.
Benchmark: Do you have a specific strategy for tablets? Different from mobile?
Mike Frazzini: We’re evolving the desktop site to be able to support the tablet user as well. So we do definitely have a different strategy for it. We feel it’s very important. We’re seeing huge growth in it, particularly after last holiday season – we saw a significant spike in user agents and platforms that are associated with tablets. It’s definitely very important to us. We’re concentrating now on just making sure our desktop site controls are consistent with the tablet experience, making sure that a lot of the gestural-type controls are compatible and work well.
Beyond that, we have a broader initiative around responsive design to make sure that, as the tablet space evolves and as it continues to grow as a visitor customer base for us, that we’re keyed into the important controls and display aspects, especially as we develop new features. We have a product management group that’s really focused on that.
Benchmark: Some of the retail data from last year indicates that tablet shoppers tended to be more valuable than mobile users overall. They tend to convert at a higher rate and spend more money. Did you track that and was that the experience with your customers as well?
Mike Frazzini: We did to some degree, and we definitely found that the iPad users converted the highest, but it wasn’t too far from the Kindle. And the biggest segments in tablet visitors were iPad and Kindle for us.
Benchmark: What would be on your wish list for your sites, both desktop and mobile? If you could change anything, if you could have whatever you wanted, what would you do?
Mike Frazzini: The site’s always evolving. So we’re constantly testing it, and it’s hard to pin down any one thing we’d want to change or improve, because oftentimes we found that it comes down to a myriad of things that really moves the needle. But we’re continuously evolving it.
I think if you look at where our priorities are, it’s going to tell you what we’re not satisfied with and what we’re striving to improve. And again, it does come back to the responsive design, making sure that the eBags experience is as good as it can be across any device type. One thing that we’ve worked on that I haven’t mentioned is expanding our business intelligence and data warehousing to support device type so that all of our business reports include the device type dimension.
That’s just now completed and it’s going to give us a lot of the data to pursue a lot of the other initiatives. That’s one area – and then just continuing to evolve the experience, making it richer. We were a leader early-on in video, but I know that there’s going to be a huge swing and focus on all platforms, especially the desktop site, but all the other platforms as well; we see that becoming an expected and valuable part of the e-commerce experience.
Benchmark: What is your take on social? People have been talking about social commerce for some time now, but for many businesses, it has yet to take on a big role. What’s your perspective?
Mike Frazzini: It’s considered really an expected part of the experience with e-commerce now, and you’ll see, looking at both of our sites, handbags.com and ebags.com, that we have extensive social integration, from underlying open graph tags that optimize the suggestion of our site content on some of the social sites to things like the obvious Facebook ‘like’ buttons.
We have Pinterest integration, we have an extensive amount of social integration already, and it’ll continue to be a focus. So it’s definitely an expected part of being an e-retailer online. We’re also about to roll out an expanded authentication, OAuth authentication, feature as well. So yes, we continue to integrate more social – that’s a really good point.
Benchmark: What do you see on the horizon? What trends do you see impacting the way you do business?
Mike Frazzini: Kind of along the same lines – continued expectation of responsive design and richer experiences. It’ll continue to be a focus on availability and performance and making sure that, as we make the site more usable and richer, that we don’t degrade performance. The feature sets that are key to our category, as a specialty retailer, it’s very important to us that we have features and a site and an experience that conveys that expertise – that we’re not just some giant online retailer that sells everything.
We truly have a passion for bags and fashion accessories and we want that to show through our site. So lots of initiatives around that.
Benchmark: And your passion shows, both in your products and on your sites. We hope it’s a great holiday season for you.
About Mike Frazzini
Mike Frazzini is vice president at eBags.com, where he has spent 14 years honing the online-only retailer's Web presence. Prior to eBags.com, Mike worked at Kenan Systems/Lucent, PricewaterhouseCoopers and elsewhere in software development, IT operations, transaction processing, security, and e-commerce infrastructure. He holds degrees in Computer Information Systems and Business/Finance from Regis College. Mike has logged over 150,000 miles with his Trager brief and laptop case, and he's is a loyal Denver Broncos fan through good times and bad.