By now it’s a familiar scene each holiday season: throngs of eager shoppers bursting through the entrance to major retailers, swarming through the aisles in the mad holiday shopping rush that has come to be known as Black Friday—so named because it’s the day when many retailers finally begin to make a profit for the year (moving from “in the red” to “in the black” in accounting terms).

john lewis logoBut the ubiquitous news footage of the annual retail mayhem inside the shops tells only part of the story. On Black Friday—traditionally the day after Thanksgiving in the United States—retailer websites experience an corresponding crush of shoppers bursting through their digital doors, an onslaught that can take down a company’s website if it’s not properly prepared.

Earlier this year at the New Relic London Summit, Simon Skelton, IT Operations Manager, Online at John Lewis, gave a presentation on “How to Survive Black Friday.” He recounted the experience of manning the “Black Friday control room” with his team for 36 hours straight (with only one hour of sleep). Simon was joined on stage by New Relic Senior Software Analytics Architect Manesh Tailor, who was in the control room with Simon and his team for the duration of that hectic day. The informative case study they shared demonstrated how the popular U.K. retailer not only survived but thrived under the pressure, with the company posting record online sales for Black Friday weekend 2015.

In the past, John Lewis relied on various reporting tools to monitor the health of its website. “But what we really lacked was insight into what was happening with our customers, the end-user experience,” explained Simon. Fortunately, the team had recently started implementing the New Relic Software Analytics Cloud to help it monitor and understand the user experience of its customers in real time—just in time for the big day.

Morning, noon, and night

A big part of understanding the user experience is knowing where those users are coming from. New Relic’s monitoring tools allowed Simon’s team to monitor how customers were interacting with the John Lewis website over the course of the day. They learned that mobile activity began to pick up as early as 6 a.m., although at that point “it was mostly just browsing rather than buying,” he noted. But once people arrived in the office—since unlike in the United States, Black Friday is a workday in the U.K.—things changed fast: visits to the website via desktop browsers surged between 9 and 10 a.m., then remained relatively steady throughout the workday.

john lewis presentation

John Lewis’s Simon Skelton (left) and New Relic’s Manesh Tailor on stage together at the New Relic London Summit.

After hours the site traffic once again turned heavily mobile, which Simon said could include customers sitting on their sofas at home and shopping on their tablets. “Ironically, everyone seems to be sitting on their tablet buying more tablets,” he joked. But this deep level of insight was critical in order to get a complete picture of the customers’ actual experience on the company’s website.

Evolving customer expectations

Today, Black Friday is bigger than ever—it’s just not happening in the malls anymore. Simon said that the company’s physical stores are seeing less and less of the standard Black Friday crush, as more customers opt for the relative peace and calm of doing their Black Friday shopping online (perhaps from those comfy couches Simon envisioned).

But if customer behavior is changing, so are customer expectations: “You now expect a sub-2 second response time, otherwise people are abandoning your site and going to your competitors,” said Simon.

While John Lewis was able to keep shaving off response time on the server side, that could only yield so much benefit. Simon and his team decided they needed to approach the challenge in a different way and really try to understand what was happening on the customers’ side. New Relic Browser and New Relic Insights became invaluable tools in this effort, explained Simon, “Because the gap to me was about that real user monitoring.”

To see examples of the kinds of metrics New Relic allowed Simon’s team to track in real time, and to hear his explanation of how their efforts helped John Lewis have its most successful Black Friday ever, watch the video of Simon and Manesh’s full New Relic London Summit talk:

To learn more about how John Lewis survived and thrived through the holiday shopping season, be sure to read 36 hours in the Black Friday ops room at John Lewis.

And to learn how to prepare your own business for the fast-approaching holiday season, don’t miss 7 Key Steps for a Profitable Black Friday: A Quickstart Guide for E-tailers.


David Gaule is an editor at New Relic. Prior to joining the company, he served as senior editor for Way back in the days of paper books, David held positions at HarperCollins Publishers and Little, Brown & Company. View posts by .

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