May 2, 2008, 12:00 AM

Bigger picture

By viewing sites and technologies with a broader perspective, retailers are finding better ways to monitor and improve performance.

Having learned the hard way that downtime and slow pages cause lost sales and alienate customers, retailers are getting pretty good at monitoring the basic performance of their web sites. Most retailers today regularly test their home and product pages. They look for performance-related problems such as poor load time, bad links or non-functional shopping carts.

But as e-commerce technology becomes even more complex, many merchants aren’t taking into account how complicated new features such as video will impact performance, according to Internet Retailer’s latest monthly survey.

The survey, this one on web site performance, also reveals that merchants need to implement different testing procedures and look at monitoring their home and product pages from a broader perspective. Today, most web retailers operate their e-commerce sites within accepted industry standards for page load times of 3 seconds or less for shoppers with broadband and 30 seconds or less for a dial-up connection. The survey finds that 69.7% of retailers’ home pages download in fewer than 3 seconds, including 42.7% in fewer than 2 seconds. Retailers also are providing speedy dial-up access, with 81.8% delivering a load time of 30 seconds or less, including 50.6% under 15 seconds.

Whether they do the job internally or use a third-party service, retailers are monitoring site connectivity from a variety of end points. The survey finds that 41.5% of retailers measure response time from customers shopping at home with a broadband connection, compared with 33% from an external backbone network, 25.5% from broadband-connected workers shopping online at the office and 28.7% from other traffic points.

Better monitoring is also leading to higher web site availability as evident by the 94.5% of merchants reporting an availability rate of 90% and higher, including 71.6% greater than 98%. In Internet Retailer’s previous web site performance survey a year ago, 81.9% of respondents reported availability of 91% or greater.

Clearly more retailers are taking precautions to eliminate traffic bottlenecks and troubleshoot basic performance-related problems. 32.6% report that they have experienced no major outages for at least one year, nearly three times the proportion-11.6%-from just 12 months ago.

But even as retailers do a better job of eliminating routine traffic jams, they need to extend monitoring activity to include more sophisticated features and functions, hosted applications and different ways that shoppers arrive at a home or product page. The survey was e-mailed in early April to all subscribers of IRNewsLink, the magazine’s e-newsletter and all responses were collected and analyzed by Vovici Corp., which has partnered with Internet Retailer in a series of surveys of the e-retailing industry. The survey finds that retailers are incurring frequent performance-related problems when they add more sophisticated applications.

Watch those new apps

Of the 123 chain retailers, catalog companies, web-only merchants and consumer brand manufacturers taking part in the survey, 43.3% say the addition of features and codes such as video, animation and asynchronous JavaScript and XML, or Ajax, has hurt site performance. “More retailers are keeping a watchful eye on daily site traffic, peak periods of activity and site availability,” says Keynote Systems Inc. senior manager of web site performance Ben Rushlo. “What most retailers aren’t really adept at measuring are the performance aspects of new applications or hosted services.”

Today, most basic internal or third-party monitoring tools measure the performance of a merchant’s core group, or cluster, of servers and the e-commerce applications and web pages that reside on that hardware. 77.3% of retailers include site responsiveness in their basic monitoring program, followed by load balancing and content validity each at 9.1% and application behavior at 4.5%.

But as merchants add hosted applications to their e-commerce sites, they also need to take into account how these new features and functions will impact performance. “I recently had the chief information officer at a large web retailing organization tell me their site performance exceeded the industry standard because their home page loaded in under 2 seconds and I told him that he wasn’t measuring broadly enough,” says Rushlo. “This retailer had multiple hosted applications, but wasn’t monitoring how well they were performing. They knew the home page was performing well, but weren’t tracking the slower load time of their hosted site search.”

Retailers certainly know the results of not meeting customer expectations if their web site is performing poorly. 72.3% of merchants measure the impact of poor web site performance on their business by lost revenue, followed by lost traffic at 58.5%, higher call center and e-mail traffic at 42.6%, negative customer reviews at 26.5% and lower customer satisfaction ratings at 21.3%. But to get a more accurate picture of web site performance, retailers need to look at a wider variety of metrics. The survey finds that only 39.6% of retailers benchmark the performance of their web sites against other retail sites and just 52.7% conduct testing before the holiday shopping season.

Test before rollout

Web merchants also need to test the performance of new page treatments and custom applications on their own e-commerce platform and web hosting service prior to a full rollout. “Retailers often have performance-related problems when they install a new feature on their e-commerce site because of a ‘wind tunnel’ effect,” says Rushlo. “The feature or function might work well on the higher speed network the design firm is using to build the application, but the results may be entirely different once the program is installed on the retailer’s platform.”

Retailers conduct frequent testing. 37.2% test home and product pages consistently using real-time reporting tools, compared with 25.6% that do so daily and 18.6% that test weekly or every month. To gauge how shoppers are viewing their sites, 84.2% test various screen resolutions and 82.6% test different combinations of browsers and operating systems. But to get a more complete picture of how different systems and resolutions can affect performance, retailers need to expand the number and frequency of the combinations they test.

450 combinations

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