Giving experiences as gifts – from theatre tickets to spa days to parachute jumps – is a growth market globally. The number-one seller of experiences in Europe is the Smartbox Group which sells more than six million experience gifts annually in 16 national markets through a wide variety of brands, including Red Letter Days, Bongo and Buyagift.

With fluctuating peak periods for selling experiences across Europe, Smartbox has recently migrated to AWS to take advantage of the flexibility of the public cloud. Guiding this successful transition is New Relic, which has helped Smartbox in its digital transformation to a business focused on delivering superb digital customer experiences.

Going on a Digital Transformation Journey

Originally, the majority of Smartbox experiences were sold through traditional retailers as gift boxes. Today, customers increasingly prefer to buy experience gifts online, and receive a digital voucher or a gift box delivered to their door. Whether the experience gift was purchased online or in-store, recipients  can register the voucher as soon as they wish on the web or through the Smartbox mobile app. This process also creates opportunities for them to explore the contents of the digital-gift box, check out the options for hotel stays, and buy other experiences linked to their experience gift.

Complicating this digital business model is how Smartbox operates in 16 countries under multiple national brands. There are different patterns of peak buying and gift registration behaviour between these markets.

As Paul Cash, director of IT operations at Smartbox, explains: “The busiest time of year for selling is the run-up to Christmas. From the 25th of December, or even the 24th in some markets, when people get their gifts, the user experience that we must manage dramatically changes. It switches  from the buying of experiences to now people wanting to redeem those gifts and  book their experiences. This is a very busy part of the year when we must ensure a consistent flow of data moving back and forth.”

Smartbox realized it needed to be able to move faster to respond to changing customer demand for buying and registering gifts at all peak times across Europe. The business decided to modernize and move all the front-end software used by each of  its brands onto AWS, while also reviewing and building extra capacity in its data center for the back-end applications.

Cash says, “The big challenge was looking at how we can spread our infrastructure across both AWS and our data center, and then get a seamless view of the performance across the multitude of our applications. New Relic provides this end-to-end visibility and allows us to give the business the confidence to move into the cloud without negatively impacting the digital customer experience.”

Migrating the front end for all brands and countries took some time, with New Relic proving invaluable in ensuring there was no performance degradation during the process. The ongoing observability of the new cloud infrastructure also enables the business to confidently scale and size its spend with AWS.

Day-to-Day Digital Insights Improve the Business

New Relic instrumentation plays a key role in how the business runs every day and prepares for peaks.

New Relic Browser is used by the operations team to drill down into the regional details about how customers are interacting with Smartbox web stores within national markets. This is especially useful for the business in its  biggest markets of France, Italy and Spain.

“We start looking at how people are visiting the web stores in the run-up to Black Friday and Cyber Monday,” Cash explains. “We might find a lot of customers are coming from Chrome mobile and can use New Relic to help us answer if there is anything we can do to make the experience better. New Relic gives us the facts opposed to relying on a gut feeling of what’s happening in many locations.”

“We start looking at how people are visiting the web stores in the run-up to Black Friday and Cyber Monday. We use New Relic to help us answer if there is anything we can do to make the experience better. New Relic gives us the facts as opposed to relying on a gut feeling of what’s happening.”

Paul Cash Director of IT operations at Smartbox

The insights gained through New Relic uncover customer behaviours and  trends that Smartbox is using to develop its digital services and improve experiences for individual markets.

“New Relic Browser gives us the qualitative information to help see how we should differentiate the app versus the web view,” Cash notes. “This can be insights into how, for instance, significantly more traffic is coming from non-urban areas of France, allowing us to plan for how we might customize the experience accordingly. We had used the likes of Google Analytics before and it had made it very, very hard to get the insights we needed.”

Generating DevOps Harmony

Greater visibility has led to a significant improvement in cross-functional work between Smartbox’s operations and developer teams, while reducing the number of tools used for application and infrastructure monitoring. This includes minimizing their use of Zabbix, and reducing their footprint with other monitoring products like Site24x7.

Cash says: “The dialogue between developers and operations has improved dramatically because now there is a single pane of glass to see what’s happening in real time. All the developers use New Relic, and at our morning stand-ups we show how something released in the last 24 hours has performed.”

Tool consolidation also supports the standardization of Smartbox’s processes for software production, release plans, and post-release monitoring, enhancing their deployment process overall.

“Co-deployments have become a lot better thanks to New Relic, in turn improving our time to market. It’s making everything visible,” Cash reports. “Each time we do a deployment we can see everything clearly. We can see any improvements or degradations and make the right calls on what to do.”

The confidence built up from widely adopting New Relic now enables the business to be more agile and responsive to changing customer needs and market requirements. One great example of this is how the long-established application change freeze prior to Christmas has been largely unfrozen.

“We’re now able to loosen the restrictions on people releasing updates on the road towards Christmas because we get such good real-time visibility with New Relic,” Cash says.. “This is one of the biggest things for us because everyone can see what the impact of changes might be up- and down-stream.”

A Vital Source of Truth for the Whole Business

New Relic has become crucial to how Smartbox runs and manages customer experiences today and in the future. The importance to the business of such comprehensive instrumentation of the customer-facing apps and cloud infrastructure is likely to grow.

Cash concludes, “We have the business teams coming to us asking for more real-time dashboards built with New Relic. My team can have a meaningful discussion with the business about how our technology and business KPIs are aligned. Quite simply, New Relic is making what IT operations does 100 per cent visible across the organisation.”

 “New Relic is making what IT operations does 100 per cent visible across the organization.”

Paul Cash Director of IT operations at Smartbox

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