When a retailer offers customers their daily bread at 1950s prices, you’d expect business would spike. But add in a dozen eggs and two litres of milk for 59 cents each and suddenly it’s an offer few can refuse.

That was the bargain put forth by Grocery Gateway recently and the result was a 40 per cent growth in business within a week of their promotion debut.

When the ’50s promotion was sent out to the 129,000 people in the Grocery Gateway database, bandwidth shot up to six Mbps.

“”We had a big scramble getting more Web servers in the pool to handle the load, but we were seeing about 500 concurrent shoppers at the same time, which for us was huge,”” says Grocery Gateway vice-president of technology Brian Miller.

The site saw a 500 per cent increase in the number of customers shopping at one time at the site. While the campaign was advertised on radio and in print, it was the customers who received an e-mail notice that initially drove traffic to the site.

“”We have done mass e-mail marketing before, but this particular campaign resonated with our customers, the responses to our other mass e-mail campaigns didn’t increase traffic to the Web site immediately, it was more gradual. But this one, because the offering was so compelling, it sparked so much interest that people just clicked through the e-mail they received and went right into our Web site and started shopping.””

But while Miller knew the promotion was coming, he wasn’t particularly worried about whether the site could handle the throng of new customers looking to cash in on a 19 cent loaf of bread. For almost a year the company has outsourced its Web infrastructure to Toronto-based Q9 Networks which provides managed bandwidth and physical space in its downtown data centre, with a service level agreement that promises 100 per cent network uptime.

“”We knew we had the capacity to handle it from a bandwidth perspective, but we had to enhance our compute capacity at the Q9 data centre,”” says Miller.

“”There are a couple of ways of measuring traffic and we had built our Web site to handle about 100 concurrent shoppers which is not big in the scheme of Amazon.com or anything like that, even though people may tend to grocery shop at the same time, it was adequate,”” says Miller. “”We were running about two Mb of bandwidth per second and that’s what they bill us at.””

But when the promotion began, the number of concurrent shoppers increased by 400. And it was Q9 that alerted Miller that traffic was on an upward spiral within an hour of the e-mail going out.

“”We monitor all of our connections to our service providers and we have massive amounts of connectivity to all of our service providers and we monitor those and make sure we are always ahead of the curve,”” says Osama Arafat, president and CEO of Q9 Networks. “”We always have sufficient headroom in all of our connections so that when customers like Grocery Gateway need to spike up there is sufficient bandwidth available. Depending on who the customer is, they may peak at different times so what we allow them to do is have a really big pipe and we maintain all the connectivity to the service provider to make sure there is sufficient headroom.””

Before signing on with Q9, Grocery Gateway used AT&T MetroNet which provided Internet access and bandwidth.

“”All the customers to our site would go through AT&T MetroNet and we had a couple of problems (around) the stability of the bandwidth,”” says Miller. “”Sometimes our site would be down because AT&T were having problems which killed us. The other thing we noticed was the amount of time it took someone, for example, in Toronto, to actually get to our site. They were going down to New York, sometimes to California so if you look at the way information gets routed through the Internet it was taking about 17 hops to get to us. So when we went to Q9 we cut the number of hops required to get to us by 8 or 9.”” AT&T did not return calls for comment at press time.

Buying groceries may not be a very high-tech task but when customers choose to do it online, Miller says it can’t be wrought with technical problems.

“”People want a snappy experience on the Web site because at the end of the day it’s about shopping for groceries – its not something we want customers to dwell on our site doing. We know it is a bit of a chore and we want to save them time and our company looks more professional when the response time is very quick.””

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