“Very few retailers would be speaking today,” says Adam Warne, global IT director at AO.com, speaking to Computer Weekly on Black Friday. “Since it hit the UK in 2014, we have seen Black Friday as our busiest week of the year. It is a huge opportunity for us to win customers.”
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Warne seems extremely relaxed and says all AO’s IT dashboards are looking good. “We started our Black Friday a week ago,” he says. “All the stats are very positive. Lots of customers are coming to the site and talking advantage of deals, and signing up to accounts.”
Black Friday marks the start of the busy sales period going through to Christmas and then the Boxing Day sales.
From a business readiness perspective, there is a “huge effort to get ready”, says Warne.
Given that AO.com is an internet-only electrical retailer, Warne says: “It used to be a big challenge to determine how many customers would come to our site.”
Part of the issue AO.com faced was that it ran the site on physical servers. Because of this, Black Friday was challenging and costly, both from an IT infrastructure perspective and for the IT teams that needed to support the business during this busy sales period, he says.
The company then took the decision to migrate from physical infrastructure to Amazon Web Services (AWS).
“AWS will help us,” says Warne. “Our initial reason for moving was to handle scale.” But the recent shift to per-second billing has economic and environmental benefits, and he adds: “There are long periods of time, such as at 2am when shoppers don’t generally shop for electricals. Per-second billing allows us to save money and the energy savings are significant – it lowers our environmental impact.”
Clearly, Amazon is also a massive electrical retailer. Warne says: “We did feel there was a conflict of interest and it definitely sells the same product as us. We differentiate ourselves on the things we are good at: the service we offer to our customers through the sales and after sales.”
AWS a natural choice
That said, Warne admits AWS is a natural choice for web-hosting e-commerce sites. “AWS is almost like a drug,” he says. “It becomes the first natural thing to solve a hosting problem. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions where you invest. Are we a business that will make a difference on the tech platform? No. We are a retailer.”
Warne says AO.com did look at other public cloud providers. “It was a bit like shopping for a TV,” he says. “One would come out with a feature, then the others would follow.”
He says the company has a culture of building close relationships with its partners, which is why it chose AWS.
Warne says that originally, the company simply wanted to replatform its physical infrastructure on AWS. “We realised our mindset of physical infrastructure was holding us back, so we changed the architecture to better leverage the high availability AWS offers,” he says.
Although AO.com still operates an SQL Server database, Warne says he will be looking at the RDS alternative on AWS and more AWS features.
The migration from physical to AWS-hosted infrastructure-as-a-service was completed in July. “Commissioning infrastructure used to the slowest part of any project,” says Warne. “Now we don’t need to get the infrastructure team involved, so we are moving more to a DevOps approach.”
Among the initial benefits of the migration has been better testing, says Warne. “Our website is very bug-free and we can do intense testing on AWS,” he adds.
Earlier this year, AO.com began sponsoring the Britain’s Got Talent show on ITV. “We saw a chance to become a household name,” says Warne. The sponsorship deal came midway through the transition to AWS.
“We forecast that Britain’s Got Talent would lead to the biggest hit in traffic in our history,” he says.“ On TV, you get customers for 20 seconds. The initial hit is very fast. The show gets a lot of traffic and it finishes in a huge final. With such a big event, our traffic volumes would be off the scale.”
Warne says many people use their smartphones as a second TV screen, which means there is an opportunity for them to go onto the AO.com site.
“Half-way through the AWS project, we needed to find a solution and went for the Akamai Ion platform,” he says. This effectively caches content closer to the retailer’s customers, so AO.com can not only handle the spike in internet traffic, but customers also get a faster experience.
“For Black Friday, retailers have a deals page,” he adds. “At AO.com, this page is served directly through Akamai Ion.”
While the site is now running live on AWS, Warne says: “We have kept Akamai Ion because it simplifies how often we have to scale AWS and means there is less work for my team to do.”
Going forward, Warne says AO.com’s e-commerce strategy is to make things as simple as possible for its customers. “You have to operate where the customer wants us to be,” he says. “Mobile usage growth is growing very rapidly but we also have to look at what is coming next, such as voice assistant.” Returning to Black Friday, Warne adds: “I think we are slightly over-prepared.”