As one of the three big retailers running toy sales right now, Big W expects to sell around 3.5 million toys over the next fortnight. How does it use technology to make that happen, and how does it ensure that its online store doesn't crash under the weight of demand?
2012 marks the second year in a row where Big W has made toy sale items available online a week before going into stores. Big W innovation manager Has Fakira said that was partly a pragmatic decision — it's quicker to get all goods to a central warehouse than out to the whole store network — and partly a reflection of the increased importance of online retail. Fakira told Lifehacker the site is expecting four times as many customers as last year, though the majority will still end up buying through a physical store.
Ensuring availability is a key concern, but Big W hasn't yet gone for a full cloud solution. "We've gone for a content distribution network for a lot of the assets, and a mixture of physical infrastructure and the private cloud so we have a bunch of virtual machines we can ramp up and down as we need to bring them on. That works quite well for us, and it takes a lot of the pressure off from an internal asset management perspective. Every hour we learn about the different bottlenecks in performance.
"Customers always use the site in a slightly different way to what you've anticipated, so you have to be quite flexible so you can make changes through the event. It groans under load and we're bringing more servers on for the balance of the event; there's guys working on that as we speak. We're still finding the optimal layout."
Another element of the plan is the Big W iOS app. When it was first rolled out price-comparing app for iOS last year, Big W promised to add the ability to buy directly to a future version of the app. That version has now been released.
The shopping option includes the ability to lay-by products, which is one of the major focuses for this year's toy sales (at both Big W and its rivals Kmart and Target; see our full guide to the sales). "A lot of customers want to pay things off over time," Fakira said.
The database which lets you scan products in other stores and see the Big W price has also been updated, and now features more than 60,000 products. There's a big emphasis on QR codes, which can also be scanned from the printed Toy Sale catalogue. That was shown off in a giant mock catalogue displayed outside the QVB in Sydney today; you can see it pictured at the top of this post (along with a familiar-looking shark).
That's all very well for iOS owners, but what about everyone else? An Android version is in active development and should appear before the end of the year, though whether it will exactly match the iOS version isn't clear. "We're just working on the timing of what our future expansion is. Obviously we're keen to do Android, but it just happens that the vast majority of our customers are on iOS, so that's where we started."
For other platforms, Fakira says a general HTML5 site is the option beging explored. "The hardest part is understanding what the customer wants first and creating a compelling offer. But we're committed to giving our customers choice over device."