With Black Friday a distant memory in the UK and US, we thought we'd catch-up with Ampersand to understand who the big winners and losers were in the UK retail race on Black Friday. Ampersand is a commerce agency that helps established high street retailers build better online stores. They work with multi-channel retailers, such as Harvey Nichols, Poundland and Bensons for Beds to help increase conversion and efficiency through the use of technology.

Ampersand used Geckoboard to track the website performance of all the major UK retailers through this dashboard during Black Friday, and also have a dashboard to look back over a 24 hour period here. You'll be able to access these dashboards throughout the 2015 Christmas retail period. We caught up with Darryl Adie their Managing Director to hear about their major findings during the festive retail period.

Can you tell us a bit about what you built, how you built it and what the objective was?

In 2014, the rush of Black Friday dramatically surprised even the UK’s biggest retailers. Ampersand research on the day found that over 50% of retailers that ran Black Friday sales, experienced website issues. The drama of 2014 taught retailers that Black Friday couldn't be ignored and the media frenzy that ensued heightened consumer awareness of the event for 2015.

Ampersand planned to repeat the research this year, but this time, we wanted to make the data public. We wanted to give busy journalists and analysts a place to quickly understand the state of the retail web in the UK on what has become the biggest sale event of the year online. So, we created a public live tracker that monitored the uptime, downtime and response times of websites.

Using data from Pingdom, we set up two Geckoboards. The first board displayed real time uptime and downtime of the top 50 online retailers as defined by the IMRG. The second showed historical data, tracking response time and uptime from the past 24-hours for the same list of retailers. We set up the monitoring in such a way that Pingdom registered a website as down even if it was serving a holding page or a queuing system to consumers.

What were the key findings during Black Friday?

The Black Friday in-store experience may have been a little muted compared to last year, but online, retailers still felt the pressure.

On the whole, UK retailers are gaining their footing. According to our analysis, only 22% of UK retail websites experienced downtime over Black Friday, including Argos, Boohoo, Boots, Game and John Lewis. Others suffered intermittent service disruption, including River Island, BHS, House of Fraser and Tesco. Some suffered no outages including Very, Next, New Look, Halfords, M&S, Amazon, Debenhams and Currys.

Who were the big winners and losers over that period?

Launching Christmas promotions earlier in the year may simply adjust the profit curve for retailers – bringing in the same profits but in a new pattern. So, sales-wise it’s still early to tell. Amazon, Curry’s, AO.com and Shop Direct all reported positively on sales and traffic over Black Friday.

What do you think eCommerce businesses can learn from your research around Black Friday? How can they improve?

Ever-extending sales periods like this are notoriously hard to predict. Retailers should look at hourly analytics reporting and cross check with how and when systems outages occurred. Starting load and performance testing right away will give retailers the best chance of avoiding outages next year.

With a whole year ahead to plan, retailers must consider how they can deliver a consistent customer experience and avoid downtime, even if that means sacrificing a few of the ‘bells and whistles’ of functionality. To read more advice about preparing for Black Friday in 2016, download our report.

What are you predicting to happen over the Christmas period?

Initially, we thought that the growing popularity of Black Friday in the UK was going to change the shape of the retail year, with many consumers beginning their gift shopping earlier. Instead, Black Friday was more of a self-indulgent day for British shoppers. According to YouGov online research commissioned by Ampersand, 63% of shoppers in the UK bought items for themselves on Black Friday. Less than a third (30%) bought gifts solely for others. This counters the view that Black Friday has brought the Christmas retail calendar forward. Many consumers may still have the bulk of their Christmas shopping to do.

Ampersand doesn’t expect there to be another major, one-day rush for the rest of the Christmas trading period. From now through the January sales, most retailers will have historical data to draw from and probably won't be caught out. However, consumer behaviour is changing and retailers must be aware. Retailers will be considering when to start Boxing day sales, as they analyse consumer data. For example, it’s likely that consumers will shop on Christmas day to spend gift cards or use new devices to shop.

Thanks to the folks at Ampersand for sharing their insights, and also building a really useful resource for retailers!