December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Sticking Around

With 8,000 to 10,000 SKUs already online, and hundreds more going up each week, the good news at eBags.com was that online shoppers had a huge choice of purses, briefcases and luggage at their fingertips. But unless eBags could serve up product images pronto, visitors might not stick around to see them. Making file downloads faster would be one way to get shoppers to stay on the site, but with a load of 18,000 product images to wrangle, eBags was built for selection, not speed. Site stickiness-and how to get it-had the e-retailer stumped. “Early on, we had issues with site performance,” says Mike Frazzini, vice president of information technology at Denver-based eBags. “High-quality images cause file sizes to be large, which in turn causes download time to be slow.”

Speed, ease of navigation and compelling content are “the three-legged stool of site stickiness,” says Giga Information Group Analyst Joel Yaffe. That is, all three come into play in dictating the length of time visitors stay on a site and how much they interact with it while there (typically measured in page views per visit.) In a point-and-click world where the competition is but one tap of a mouse away, stickiness has become a goalpost for retail sites as they battle to hang onto visitors longer in the hope that time spent will make buyers out of browsers. To get sticky, e-retailers along with other web destinations are beefing up content, expanding the range of services and activities they offer, building community to give visitors a reason to hang around, and turning to an emerging group of technology providers to dish up the whole offering as quickly as possible.

At eBags, the marketing team faced up to facts three months after launch: slowpoke page downloads meant lower conversion rates and shopper bailouts. But cutting back on image quality wasn’t an option. “Image quality is a necessity,” says eBags CEO Jon Nordmark. “It’s not only the thing that replaces the touch and feel of a product, it also drives down returns cost.” To speed downloads, eBags would need to spread the task beyond its own servers, and it turned to Akamai Technologies. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company is an Internet content and streaming media service provider-it doesn’t dream up content, but harnesses powerful technology to deliver it. Akamai took on the heavy lifting, serving up the data-dense jpeg product image files from its own distributed network, in effect turning the e-retailer’s servers into thousands of servers.

Free to focus on business transactions, eBags’ own servers managed to speed up transaction times. Pages at the e-retailer download 50-100% faster since it started working with Akamai last fall. Abandonment of shopping carts dropped by about 15%, page views have increased to an average 5.2 pages from 3.5 per visitor, and the conversion rate, the acid test for e-retailers, has increased by 0.25%-a significant boost in an industry where conversion rates average 2-8%.

Free hot dogs

In fact, such gains are the payoff sought by e-retailers focused on site stickiness. But stickiness as a stand-alone isn’t necessarily a gold standard of success for retail sites. While morphing from a portal into a destination, for example, Yahoo has layered a boatload of features such as instant messaging, personalized news and more on top of shopping, with the idea that visitors can fill a variety of needs by sticking with Yahoo. Today, Yahoo is ranked tops in stickiness among the portals and search engines by New York-based Media Metrix, with the average visitor spending 83 minutes at Yahoo.com to view an average 72 pages per month.

Sounds great, right? But here’s what’s tricky about being sticky for retail sites: stickiness doesn’t necessarily mean sales. When shopping is just one of many reasons to hang out on Yahoo and other multi-function web destinations like it, visitors can and do spend hours on the site without making a single purchase. “A site may give people free email, so they stay on it more, but they may not be in a purchase mode,” says Sean Kaldor, vice president of e-commerce at Milpitas, Calif.-based Neilsen NetRatings. “If I had a store, this would be like setting up a patio outside and giving away free hot dogs. People hang around my front door, but they’re not really in my store shopping.”

In fact, little independent research exists as yet that provides hard data correlating either page views per visitor or duration of stay on a site with increased spending per visitor. At the Washington-based National Retail Federation, Internet retailing Vice President Scott Silverman says members talk more of how to convert shoppers, get them to return, and keep them satisfied than how to get them to stay at a site longer.

“If your metric as an e-retailer is duration of time a person stays on your site, how are you to know that they’re not on your site for a long time because they can’t find what they need rather than because they’re enjoying themselves so much they don’t want to leave?” Silverman says. “I don’t see that there’s any direct correlation between revenue generated and the amount of time someone is on your site.”

Who’s sticky?

Media research firms could soon settle the question by slicing data to line up time spent at a site with sales generated during the visit; word is that’s already in the works at NetRatings. And the Peppers and Rogers Group, Stamford, Conn., is planning a study correlating shopping and buying. Although, despite the current lack of hard data, most industry observers agree a link between stickiness and spending makes intuitive sense. “The more satisfied people are with your site, the more time they spend on it, and the more opportunities for cross selling come up,” Kaldor says.

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