The Tech Behind The Big W Toy Sale: Private Cloud, QR Codes, iOS And Crossed Fingers

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."

Going mobile

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."


    "Obviously we’re keen to do Android, but it just happens that the vast majority of our customers are on iOS"

    How do you know? If you don't offer an Android version you can't compare app uptake or purchases through the apps. How do you make the call that iOS is more important?

    Not trying to troll, but genuinely curious how business (especially BIG businesses) make that decision.

      My guess is by looking at the mobile devices that are browsing their website? Probably the only way.

        Perhaps. Still, browsing a mobile website and using an app are two different things. I usually do my online shopping with the laptop and use my mobile or tablet for simple browsing.

    Doesn't BigW sell android phones and not iPhones?

      they sell both but older versions of Iphone from memory

    They'll need to work a little harder on bringing up more servers :-)
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    Curious why you didn't specifically ask them about Windows Phone - but just lumped it in "with everything else". You had the contact, the interview - and missed a chance to get their direct thoughts on Windows Phone Dev/Investment......

    anyone seen the audio sonic tablet in the Kmart catalogue they have 2 one a 10" going for 199 and the other a 7.7" going for 99 supposedly running android (unable to confirm which one though)

      ive seen this too and i want to know if they're dodgy or worth getting? i have a laptop but i want a simple tablet for shits and gigs does anyone know if the 99 kmart advertised "audiosonic" one will suffice?

        Don't get the $99 version. My 13 yo old brought this and it runs an older version of android, in fact he is not sure its a genuine verion as the icon are different from his android smartphone. You cannot access google play through android, have to use browser and the touch screen is not calibrated correctly. Gives instructions on how to calibrate and it would not work. Thois basically renders the device unusable. several keys are activated by pressing the letter next to it and some don't even work. We are taking it back for a refund. He only wanted it to last for 12 months as he has to get an ipad for school in 18 mths.

    Why no comments on the mascot? That thing is freaky a could cause children to develop a fear for their brand. No Don Draper thought that up maybe an LSD high Sterling ?

    Mr Big!!! Creepiest mascot ever, hope it comes to my store

    Was Lifehacker paid for this article? Because its really nothing but a big advertisement...

    I hope they've made these changes in just the last few months because the site has always performed poorly prior (and I'm not talking about during a sale).

    Guys like Big W are going for deal sites as well and some retailers like Kmart don't want deal sites to put catalogues on their sites so things are a bit all over the place while big retailers try to make some money after six long slow months since Christmas.
    Interesting to see the evolution of catalogue distribution in Australia.

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