February 28, 2007, 12:00 AM

Improving performance

Slow pages and site crashes still hurt many retail sites.

The web retailing market is now more than a decade old and in that time the telecommunications industry has invested billions of dollars in building a global Internet infrastructure, while retailers have spent millions of dollars of their own investing in state-of-the-art e-commerce sites and online merchandising programs.

But as evidenced by several high profile incidents, including Walmart.com’s much publicized crash for several hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving and similar incidents at such retailers as Amazon.com, Macys.com and Overstock.com, the online retailing industry is still guilty of inconsistent web site performance. In fact, Internet Retailer’s latest monthly survey-this one on how web retailers troubleshoot performance issues-clearly suggests that merchants have a long way to go in implementing programs and procedures that eliminate site crashes and slow-loading pages.

For example, the survey, which included responses from 127 virtual merchants, 77 chain retailers, 39 catalog companies and 26 consumer brand manufacturers, found that only 57.9% of merchants test their web site performance on a continuous or daily basis. 7.1% test on a weekly basis, while 8.1% test monthly. 4.4% test only periodically. And 21.4% don’t know.

Among specific groups, catalogers are the most proactive in testing their e-commerce sites, with 71% performing continuous or daily testing vs. 56.4% of virtual merchants, 58.5% of chain retailers and 42.3% of manufacturers. “There is a lot of room for improvement in how the industry conducts performance monitoring and testing,” says Eric Feige, general manager of Usability Sciences Corp., which conducts Internet usability and user experience testing for retailers, consumer brand manufacturers and others. “If 40% of retailers still aren’t doing consistent testing, that tells me that they aren’t focusing on continual improvement of the customer experience.”

Retailers certainly know the troubling impact of lousy web site performance. The survey finds that 62% of web retailers measure lost revenue as a direct result of poor performance followed by decreased customer satisfaction, increased call center volume and higher operating costs.

Today, web retailers are competing in a market where more shoppers are accessing a merchant’s home and product pages with a broadband connection, typically a high broadband network from work and a low broadband link from a home with cable television. The survey finds that 31.6% of retailers receive between 51% and 75% of their traffic from broadband users, while 23.9% say broadband represents 76% to 100% of their monthly traffic. 3.3% get less than 25% via broadband; 14% get 26% to 50%; and 27.2% don’t know. For shoppers with broadband connection, download time is under 5 seconds at 65.5% of web merchants in the survey. 92.4% say the average dial-up user is connected in one minute or less and 49% say their dial-up load time is under 20 seconds.

Internal testing

The survey was e-mailed in early February to all subscribers of IRNewsLink, the magazine’s e-newsletter, and all responses were collected and analyzed by WebSurveyor Corp., which has partnered with Internet Retailer in a series of surveys on the e-retailing industry. The survey finds that almost all web retailers do some kind of web site performance testing, with 50.6% using a third-party service or application and 49.4% doing the job in-house. Of the companies that do their own monitoring, 51.5% have no plans to outsource the job, compared with 14% that expect to do so within 6 months, 5.9% in more than 6 months and 28.6% that don’t know.

Across the board, web retailers taking part in the Internet Retailer survey also believe they are providing customers with consistent web site performance. For example, 81.9% of retailers maintain that their average site availability over the past year has averaged 91% to 100% vs. 9.6% who say that site availability ranged from 75% to 90% and 8.5% that don’t know.

Despite the industry’s ongoing investment in Internet infrastructure and on more advanced hardware and software, many web retailers still aren’t capable of handling all the traffic that’s hitting their web sites, especially during the holidays. In fact, only 60.4% of web merchants taking part in the research test their web site performance before the holiday shopping season, while 39.6% don’t. Of the retailers that do test web site performance prior to the Christmas shopping season, 23.4% perform tests that reflect only their average monthly traffic, compared with 40.9% that test their systems with traffic that represents two to five times the monthly average, 8.4% that test six to 10 times their monthly average and 7.8% that troubleshoot 10 times the monthly average. 19.5% don’t know.

But during November and December more than one major retailer incurred a significant performance problem. On Thanksgiving Amazon.com, the world’s biggest online retailer, encountered severe traffic problems, including periodic crashes, as visitors rushed to purchase Xbox 360 video game systems. Even Walmart.com, which anticipated a record number of online Christmas shoppers, was shut down for several hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving after too many visitors flooded the site to view exclusive store specials and online deals.

Serious problem

Indeed, the Internet Retailer survey finds that web site crashes resulting in significant downtime remain a serious industry problem. For example, 10% of retailers taking part in the survey reveal that their web site was down for longer than 15 minutes in just the last month and 23.6% say they’ve had outages of more than 15 minutes within the past 90 days. 28.6% have suffered similar crashes within the past 4 months to 1 year, while 26.3% don’t know. “If almost 50% of the merchants in this survey are looking at outages of more than 15 minutes in the last six months, that’s a serious problem,” says Feige. “It’s a troubling statistic.”

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