The UK retailer used cloud services to prepare its website for a major Christmas TV and social media drive
Marks and Spencer (M&S) was founded in 1884 and is regarded as one of the UK’s most popular retailers. It has a presence in more than 50 countries, employs around 82,000 people, and has 800 stores in the UK alone, in addition to a major e-commerce business.
A key objective for the retailer was to turn the M&S .com site into its flagship store. The retailer is also pursuing an omnichannel strategy. The IT support for these projects comes from the 80-person software engineering team in the .com development division.
Magic & Sparkle
December is the most important month of the year M&S and its advertising campaigns are the cornerstone of its holiday strategy. When its multichannel marketing campaign called Magic & Sparkle encouraged people to visit a dedicated website and vote on the name of a loveable dog which featured in the campaign, it was vital it could cope with the spike in traffic.
The campaign included a primetime TV ad campaign (including a slot in one of the UK’s most viewed programs, Downton Abbey) and social media extensive promotion.
The campaign aimed to reach 97% of the UK adult population over the holiday period, interacting with each person at least three times.
“We had no idea exactly when these interactions would take place, so the whole site design had to be elastic and able to scale to cope with the potentially huge volumes of traffic,” explained John Pillar, head of software engineering for mobile, labs, retail-IT and digital stores at Marks and Spencer.
“M&S is a brand that relies on trust and if the additional traffic had slowed the e-commerce site and made it hard for consumers to purchase products, that would have been unacceptable.”
When the M&S marketing director came to John in October and outlined the Magic & Sparkle campaign, the software engineering team had to move quickly.
The retailer created a website using Microsoft Azure as it knew it would cope with the potentially high traffic in addition to saving on the expense of physical servers and internal IT resource.
It was decided early in the process that a cloud platform was the only way forward. “The culture in my team is similar to that of a start-up in terms of speed, agile and innovation and we absolutely wanted a platform to reflect that,” said Pillar.
The advantage of cloud
John’s team had previously worked with Microsoft Azure
, a cloud platform that provides on-demand compute, storage, content delivery and networking capabilities from Microsoft data centers, in other areas of the business—an e-boutique in Amsterdam and in-store kiosks—so he was familiar with its capabilities.
“We had a matter of weeks to get the Magic & Sparkle website up and running, and knew that Microsoft Azure would provide us with the speed, scale, and elasticity that such an important campaign required,” says Pillar.
“By using Azure, we could have the site up in hours if needed. If we engaged with our internal infrastructure team, it would take days just to build the server, so in terms of work hours, using Azure is invaluable.”
The Microsoft Services Premier Support team also played a major role in bringing the Magic & Sparkle campaign to life. “Testing was critical,” says Pillar. “We quickly engaged with Microsoft Services through the Premier Support for Developers programme, where the team helped us make sure that the technology could scale at the levels we required.”
A proof-of-concept site was set up and during testing, the volume of traffic led to a bottleneck. Microsoft Services allocated a section of a data center in Amsterdam and supplied beta load test software to ensure that the bottleneck was eliminated.
“A lot of people worked tirelessly to help us prepare for the campaign,” says Pillar. “The biggest endorsement of Azure is that we have used it again for campaigns of a similar nature—for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and many more holidays. We know that if a campaign goes viral and the traffic goes crazy, Azure will scale to whatever levels we need.”
Its decision to deploy a cloud-based platform meant that M&S made substantial cost savings on the infrastructure for Magic & Sparkle. There was no need to engage with its internal infrastructure teams or request that they spend valuable time preparing M&S’s own infrastructure. “The full site was up and running in one week—if we had used internal resources, the process would have taken two months,” says Pillar.
The engineering team particularly appreciates the self-service and speed when provisioning Azure components. Beyond the Magic & Sparkle campaign, M&S uses Azure elsewhere and it is a key factor for the retailer to achieve its omnichannel vision.