October 1, 2010, 12:31 PM

Up to Speed

‘Keep it simple’ is the mantra for web retailers seeking fast performance for their mobile sites.

When retailer Barneys New York decided to launch a mobile commerce site last year, the first thing Jordan Holberg pictured were the pictures the high-end apparel retailer would present to mobile shoppers.

“We were going to be selling extremely expensive merchandise that people want to see but that we wouldn’t have a lot of real estate space to work with,” says Holberg, e-commerce manager at Barneys New York. “Most of us staff live in New York where everyone has an iPhone or a Droid, but we realized not everyone is a New Yorker or a Beverly Hills fashionista with a new smartphone.”

Barneys went for the m-commerce middle ground by determining which image sizes and resolutions would load fast and look the best across a wide range of mobile devices.

And so it started testing. And testing some more.

Holberg and his team loaded beta versions of Barneys’ mobile site on every type of phone they could find. Holberg used Google Analytics to determine what kinds of mobile devices shoppers most frequently used to access its e-commerce site and also tried out the site on an array of other popular phones and smartphones. “We looked at the Motorola Razr, various forms of BlackBerrys, iPhones, Google Android phones and even the LG Chocolate,” Holberg says.

Picture perfect

The results: Thumbnail images in mobile search results look and load best on the most devices at 75 pixels by 75 pixels, about the size of a postage stamp, compared with 154x154 pixels on Barneys’ e-commerce site. The optimal size for product detail images is 200x200 pixels on mobile compared with 308x308 pixels on Barneys.com. Once it found its sweet spot, Barneys used the rich media imaging system from ChannelAdvisor Corp. it employed for its e-commerce site to resize photos without re-uploading each one.

“My advice is to test over and over on the phones themselves,” Holberg says. “It’s very repetitive and boring, but that’s the only way you are really going to understand the user experience.”

Now that hundreds of mobile merchants have m-commerce sites up and running, many are moving on to step No. 2: mobile site performance. Some keep sites basic and simple to ensure speedy load times. Others take advantage of the steadily improving mobile technology available to add features with minimal impact on performance. And when a retailer can’t deliver content as quickly as it would like, it can always communicate what’s going on to encourage the consumer to have a bit more patience.

The faster the better

Web access on a mobile phone is slower than on a PC because mobile phone networks deliver data more slowly than broadband networks on land and because phones process data more slowly than PCs, says Nikki Baird, managing partner at research and advisory firm Retail Systems Research LLC.

“On your PC at work, you’re probably getting 2 to 3 gigahertz on the processor, compared to the NexusOne smartphone which has a 1 gigahertz processor, and that’s pretty much top of the line in a phone right now,” Baird says. “Then with data speeds, you’re probably hitting 100 megabits or maybe up to 1 gigabit per second at work, whereas a 3G mobile network, at top speed, hits 2 megabits.” The 4G networks mobile phone carriers are building will approach broadband speeds, but they are only gradually coming online.

But mobile consumers don’t know or care about the technology: they want sites to load quickly on mobile devices. In fact, 46% of consumers expect sites to load as quickly, or almost as quickly, as conventional web sites do on a computer, and 12% expect them to load faster, according to a study of more than 1,000 mobile web users from web and mobile web measurement firm Gomez, a division of Compuware Corp. Only 11% expect mobile sites to load much more slowly on their phones, and 31% a bit more slowly.

“Mobile users may be willing to trade some functionality for the convenience of mobile connectivity, but they will not sacrifice speed or availability,” the Gomez study concludes.

Designed for mobile

There are several ways to deliver the speed consumers want.

Barneys, which launched its m-commerce site in October 2009, is banking on speed and simplicity. And it’s finding that easier to do because the same vendor, Demandware Inc., provides the platform for both its e-commerce and mobile sites.

When staffers add an element to the conventional web site they can choose whether to place it on the mobile site. Images not associated with products, such as pictures promoting in-store events or restaurants, are usually nixed. “We try to stick mainly to shopping,” Holberg says.

But sometimes it’s not just a matter of what content to take from the standard web site, but modifying the content, or the way the consumer navigates to it.

Take, as an example, accessing product reviews, something consumers increasingly are doing on their phones, including when standing in bricks-and-mortar stores. Instead of making a site visitor search for a product, scroll down a page, and click a “Check reviews” button, a retailer’s mobile site might feature a “Check reviews” button right on its welcome screen—similar to the way airlines offer a “Check flight status” link as a primary option on their mobile sites and apps, says Hung LeHong, research vice president, retail advisory services, at technology research and advisory firm Gartner Inc.

Velocitude, a company that specializes in transforming web content to render properly on mobile devices, is an example of the kind of vendor that offers the technical expertise to create such shortcuts, he adds. Content delivery network Akamai Technologies Inc. acquired Velocitude in June to expand its performance-acceleration services into the mobile arena.

Among Akamai’s mobile retailer clients is Your Electronic Warehouse, which launched in late April m-commerce sites for its 4Luggage.com and DiscountGolfWorld.com sites.

“We’re getting more consistent visitors coming back to our mobile sites and traffic overall is increasing,” says vice president Justin Meats.

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