Oddbins raises a glass to a new hosting service for e-commerce

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman January 29, 2015
Wine retailer tackles e-commerce performance problems in time to enjoy a vintage Christmas. Jessica Twentyman will drink to that.

The relief in Tony Duffy’s voice is almost palpable. Christmas 2014 was a resounding success for his team at wine retailer Oddbins,  where he works as e-commerce director. Fourth-quarter online sales were up more than 50% year-on-year, a good end, he says, to what was a very “trying” year for the company’s online sales channel.

Until late 2014, Oddbins simply wasn’t able to offer web shoppers the user experience they expect, he explains. Sometimes, shopping baskets would mysteriously empty. Other times, the checkout page would stubbornly fail to refresh, leaving orders incomplete.

Spikes in visitor traffic could bring the site to a complete standstill, when a particular wine was recommended on a TV food and drink show, for example. None of this was helpful to a retail brand fighting its way back under new ownership from a 2011 collapse. Says Duffy:

We had lost confidence in the website’s performance reaching the standards we expect. This created two significant problems. One is that we lost revenue due to customers being unable to make purchases and the other is reputational damage caused by these negative experiences.

Equally dispiriting, he says, was the ‘blame game’ that invariably followed in the wake of performance issues, with Oddbins’ external hosting provider blaming the company’s web development agency, and vice versa. Duffy would often find himself stuck in the middle, he says:

It’s unbelievably frustrating when you don’t have direct control. Obviously, part of my job is to manage these supplier relationships, but that feeling of helplessness when you’ve got suppliers pointing fingers at each other and saying, ‘It’s not us, it’s them’, is hard to take and it’s not how you want to spend your time.

Christmas present

Sick of refereeing these squabbles, Duffy decided to take a different approach - but it was one that involved a hair-raising race against time in the run-up to Christmas. His plan of action was to cut ties with Oddbins’ previous hosting provider and shift its e-commerce website, based on the Magento platform, onto infrastructure hosted by Rackspace.

Tony Duffy
Tony Duffy

A major factor in this decision, he says, was the expertise that the Rackspace team was able to demonstrate in managing Magento environments, along with his own experience of working with the provider in a previous role as head of e-commerce at bath and beauty products retailer, Lush. Rackspace was able to suggest a number of improvements to the way the Oddbins online store was configured that would help to tackle its performance issues, he says:

Magento, by its nature, is a very beefy, complex platform, with the idea being that it can enable you to do whatever you want with it. It’s very flexible and highly customisable, so it’s potential is terrific, but the flipside to that is that it can be clunky, plus the different plug-ins you use to customise your site might not necessarily agree with each other. What we had were too many things going on and too many interactions that just didn’t work.

The clean-up of the configuration and stress testing when preparing for the platform to be migrated created big improvements in the capacity and performance of our website. A lot of it was around how the website was cached, for example, so different elements are now stored and displayed to customers in ways that don’t place additional strain on the main servers and the website is more logically divided down into different sections.

Rackspace’s cloud-based hosting services, he adds, mean that Oddbins can quickly and cost-effectively tap into extra server capacity during peak traffic times.

After a frantic few months planning the migration, the site went live on Rackspace on 18 November. Says Duffy:

It’s definitely not the time of year you want to be migrating an ecommerce website. You certainly wouldn’t want to leave it any later than we did. But with hindsight, we’re very glad we did this, despite all the stress at that time.

On a day-to-day level, Duffy is able to check in on the site’s performance via a New Relic application performance management (APM) dashboard that shows him information on page load times, visitor numbers, server utilisation, how much memory the database is taking up, and so on.

But now that he’s no longer mired in technical issues, his time is freed up to focus on developing Oddbins’ multichannel retail proposition. The company aims to double website sales during 2015 and Duffy is hoping to roll out a ‘Click and Collect’ service, where products bought online can be picked up at one of Oddbins’ 50-plus high street stores.

2015 could be a vintage year for Oddbins. There is certainly much to look forward to, according to Duffy:

We’re back. There’s a real sense of confidence in the business. We’re trading well and looking forward to moving to the next level.

Cheers to that!