October 31, 2007, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT:The Link Between Site Performance and Sales

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“Response times are critical on key pages, especially when the shopper is conducting a search,” says Santos. “Response times not only have to meet the shopper’s expectations, especially for pages using rich media, but they also must be consistent across the entire customer base regardless of geography, date or time.”

After 4 seconds, Adios

To support his contention, Santos cites the JupiterResearch report “Retail Site Abandonment,” which says 33% of the 1,100 online shoppers surveyed abandon a site when page downloads take longer than 4 seconds.

Driving this trend toward higher performance expectations is the popularity of social networking web sites stocked with rich media content, such as MySpace.com and YouTube.com, which deliver pages in 1 second or less. “We have one client that gets a lot of customers from MySpace that has found they need to meet this requirement to keep those shoppers on their site,” adds Santos.

Akamai uses a network of 26,000 servers in about 70 countries to shorten the distances page downloads have to travel over the Internet to the shopper’s web browser. Using local servers makes it possible to utilize caching for pages designed using rich media applications. For search requests, Akamai, which can take up to 75% of a retailer’s computing power, determines the fastest path from the shopper’s web browser to the main server.

“Our infrastructure enables retailers to offload traffic from their main server, which provides them with on-demand scalability and relieves them of the cost of having to add servers and maintain them,” Santos says. “That’s a big plus when retailers are in a high-growth mode.”

One technique retailers cannot forget to employ when it comes to ensuring site performance is to proactively test site functionality, especially when the site design is changed, as is often the case when retailers move into a new selling season. Regular testing of site performance provides a baseline against which retailers can measure future performance

“Testing needs to be thorough, because any change to the site can cause a problem farther downstream that may go undetected for an indefinite period,” says Gomez’s Poepsel. “Retailers have to make it a priority to learn about how their site is performing, because they can’t predict what impact a change to the site may have, no matter how minor the change.”

Not business as usual

As part of its site monitoring services, Gomez provides page-level and transaction monitoring from more than 80 globally-located Internet backbone nodes and enables retailers to take last mile measurements at multiple connection speeds from up to 15,000 consumer PCs globally. In addition, Gomez provides web site monitoring services from agents inside the retailer’s firewall to determine whether a performance issue is internal or external. Performance is also measured from shoppers’ web browsers to identify the paths taken through the site and the impact that geography, ISP, browser size and type, operating system, and cache have on their experiences.

“Retailers can’t take a business-as-usual attitude when it comes to measuring web site performance,” Poepsel says “They have to pay close attention to the metrics used and learn how to interpret the data around those metrics so they understand the shopping experience being delivered.”

Once retailers understand the shopping experience they deliver, they can make changes in site performance that reduce the cost of servicing customers. “A lot of shoppers that experience a performance problem will call a service agent and the interaction, even if successful, makes the cost of the visit or transaction more expensive to the retailer,” says Poepsel. “Retailers want to minimize customer service interactions that center on site performance issues.”

In fact, Tealeaf, in its survey on site performance, found that 50% of respondents encountering a problem, no matter how minor, contact a service agent. Of those, 49% resolve their problems, not a particularly good track record, Galat says.

In many cases the performance problems service agents encounter are minor, such as shoppers incorrectly logging into their accounts or wish lists. Providing service agents with a record of the shopper’s current session makes it easier to identify and quickly rectify such problems.

“A lot of shoppers forget their passwords or user IDs or try to log into a password protected feature without registering,” says Galat. “Most of the time the problem and the situation are not clearly conveyed by the shopper and the service agent ends up asking a lot of questions or guessing what the problem is. Providing service agents with a record of a shopper’s session converts them from being diagnosticians to problem solvers, which is what shoppers want.”

Enabling service agents to solve performance issues is certain to improve customer retention and loyalty and boost conversion rates, as shoppers will come to know help is available. Nevertheless, retailers need to do everything possible to eliminate performance issues, especially those that may impact a small, but high spending percentage of customers.

Falling tolerance

“As online shoppers become savvier they have less tolerance for site performance problems,” says Akamai’s Santos. “In today’s competitive environment, retailers can’t afford to lose customers because of performance issues.”

Ultimately, retailers need to look at site performance as a sales, marketing, and customer retention tool, because there is more at stake than losing a sale if a customer abandons a site due to poor performance.

“If a customer goes to another site, the retailer doesn’t lose just a sale, they risk losing a profitable long-term customer relationship,” says Poepsel. “If retailers haven’t made understanding how site performance impacts their business a priority, they ought to do so and quick, because competitors have taken that step.”

In other words, consistent, quality site performance equals success.

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