August 16, 2006, 12:00 AM

Retail site performance getting worse, not better, study says

The number of e-commerce sites that don`t adeptly handle customer load and dial-up access and keep outages to a minimum is growing, even during non-peak periods, according to findings of Keynote Systems Inc.’s annual study of retail web site performance.

The number of e-commerce sites that do not adeptly handle customer load and dial-up access and keep outages to a minimum is growing, even during non-peak shopping periods, according to a new study. The decline of performance in these three areas were major themes that arose from the findings of Keynote Systems Inc.’s annual study of retail web site performance.

Compared with last year, more e-commerce sites are having difficulty handling heavy customer loads, says Ben Rushlo, director of professional services at Keynote, which conducted tests of 28 major retail sites between May 19 and June 15. “These tests were in the summer, not the holidays,” he says. “So the question is, Will they be ready come November when customer loads are four or five times greater than those in the summer?”

Further, the total amount of “downtime” caused by outages-the inability to access a page, conduct a search, complete a transaction, etc.-increased. “This translates into consumer frustration,” Rushlo says. In addition to frustration being associated with a retailer or brand, outages can cause many shoppers to leave a retailer’s site and head to one of its competitors’ sites, he adds.

The 28 e-commerce sites tested by Keynote Systems, an Internet performance measurement firm that sells research data and technology, all rank among the Top 100 of the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide to Retail Web Sites, the firm says. It declines to name all of the retailers. Sites studied fell into three categories: electronics; apparel; and books, CDs and DVDs.

News is not good in another performance area: dial-up access. “Dial-up users can forget about good performance,” Rushlo says. “Though about 30% of U.S. Internet users still use dial-up connections, even the best retailers have shifted from focusing on dial-up, narrowband performance. The number of these users continues to shrink, but that 30% still is a significant number of folks. We found average dial-up page download times around 45 seconds. If it takes 10 pages to find one product and make the purchase, that can get a bit arduous.”

As part of the annual study, Keynote Systems also measured consumer satisfaction with their experiences on retail web sites. During the testing period, the firm followed the web retailing of 5,600 shoppers-200 shoppers for each of the 28 sites in the study. Via technological monitoring and questionnaires, Keynote researchers found consumer satisfaction to be a mixed bag.

“There is a big spread between e-retailers implementing web site features and functionality that help consumers and e-retailers sticking to things that actually tick users off,” says Lance Jones, director of Internet research. “One example is e-retailers who require shoppers to register with their sites as part of the checkout process. That frustrates a lot of people.” In the study, e-retailers that offer “guest checkout” functionality, he adds, diminished customer frustration.

The firm also concluded the top drivers of customer experience include visual appeal, price satisfaction, product interest, search satisfaction and checkout satisfaction.

Overall, while some performance indicators are on the decline, Keynote researchers say it’s difficult to extrapolate the findings to the entire industry. “There clearly are two classes of online retailers in the group we studied: Some are excellent and leaders, and others are just not there yet,” Rushlo says. “This does not bode poorly for all of e-retailing; there simply are many sites that will be negatively impacted during the holiday season.”

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